The People Under the Stairs review
The people under the stairs aren’t scary, or at least Wes Craven’s intention isn’t to characterize them as such once the audience becomes accustomed to their presence. The 1991 film is an allegory – not exactly subtle, either – about the marginalizing of minorities, where the real monsters are the human beings who decide they’d rather stash their money away than funnel it back into the neighborhood, now turning into a ghetto, where it belongs (Tumblrites and SJWs would have a field day with this). And so The People Under the Stairs – a horror film whose title seems to indicate that those people in the cellar will be the evil to be vanquished – reverses roles and actually works to humanize those that have been hidden away in seclusion, all while drawing comparisons to minorities within society.
Craven’s script is quick to make this clear with his protagonist, a young black kid nicknamed Fool (Brandon Adams) who lives in a slummy apartment with his mother, sister, and Leroy (Ving Rhames). His mother’s got cancer and his family is going to be evicted for missing their rent payment, and Leroy exposits that it’s the same all over town, because the family who owns their apartment also owns most of the other buildings on the block; their evictions allow them to bulldoze the land so they can build up more department stores, and it’s leaving the whole community in poverty.
It leads to Fool and Leroy making the decision to rob a liquor store and the family’s house – purported to have a lot of gold coins – just to make ends meet. Craven treats this carefully – he’s not excusing robbery, but he’s also showing what kind of situations lead to violence and crime in ghettos. In the film’s case, it’s due to a cartoony brother-sister couple, simply known as Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie), who have become some demented from their riches that they attempt to kidnap and raise the perfect child, putting the ones that speak, hear, and see evil into the basement.
Craven’s idea is obviously over-the-top, and The People Under the Stairs plays it as such as well. Man and Woman seem to be direct relations to Flowers in the Attic‘s grandmother, but unlike V.C. Andrew’s rather serious take on the theme of incest and children in captivity, Craven explores the more ridiculous and darkly comedic side of things. It’s aided by Robie and McGill’s performances, who are definitely the highlight of the film’s wackiest moments – whether it’s Robie’s crazy recital of “Caca!” or McGill’s BDSM gear and constant reminders to “Burn in hell!”, there’s no shortage of laughs to be had at the expense of two horrible caricatures of real people.
But The People Under the Stairs does have a lot more to say than its comedy might suggest. Craven effectively develops Fool into a strong protagonist despite his nickname; that becomes an important part of the theme, however, because the film draws parallels to the creatures forced to live out their meager lives in the basement of the Man and Woman’s house. One such being, Roach (Sean Whalen), has the same sort of dehumanizing nickname as Fool; they’re given names of things, not people, and Craven indicates that Fool is just as marginalized as Roach and the other people under the stairs. They may not literally be under stairs, but they have been forced into ghettos and slums by the people who horde all of the money.
The People Under the Stairs then allows those minorities – like Fool, Roach, and the others under the stairs – to literally rise up against Man and Woman. There’s actually a scene where the leader of the people under the stairs reaches through the stairs to grab Woman, coming up from below her in a metaphor of rebellion and uprising. Craven’s use of this theme throughout the film makes this into a stronger film than it could have been; the caricatures here are intentional instead of accidental, adding to the political overtones.
The movie’s success is even more inspiring due to its limited setting. Nearly all of the film is confined to the house itself, an unending maze of wall tunnels, furnace vents, and secret passageways; Craven’s use of these elements gives The People Under the Stairs an adventurous quality that gives the film a quick pace. The only problem with the extended use of the house is toward the conclusion, which runs slightly long when the killers refuse to die again and again.
It’s important to note that The People Under the Stairs has Craven’s dark humor as its focal point. It’s a film that doesn’t take itself seriously and asks its actors to play up their hammy characters. If it’s a serious film one is looking for, try some of Craven’s others like The Hills Have Eyes or The Last House on the Left; this one’s got Craven’s penchant for sarcasm and politically-motivated jokes, something not all audiences will adopt. But The People Under the Stairs is a horror comedy with an important message, one that was forward-thinking for 1991 and still topical right alongside trending news headlines like Black Lives Matter and the recent legalization of gay marriage. The people under the stairs aren’t the monsters; they’ve only been victimized by those that hold all of the power, and Craven’s attempts to expose that resonate nearly 25 years later.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.