Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs is a fantastic horror-thriller, and arguably one of the director’s best movies. Also written by Craven, the story involves Poindexter, a black boy growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Los Angeles. His mother is dying of cancer and his family are three days late in rent and about to be evicted from their apartment. Poindexter’s nickname is “Fool” which is inspired by “The Fool” from his sister Ruby’s Tarot cards. As Ruby explains, her brother Fool is “the ignorant kind not the stupid kind”; given that he’s a child, he hasn’t experienced all the terrors that life can bring. On his 13th birthday however, like his namesake in the Tarot, Fool must go through a perilous journey, fraught with dangers, in order to become a man. Egged-on by Ruby’s friend Leroy, Poindexter is talked into breaking and entering their evil landlord’s house. Leroy has a “fool proof” plan to steal the coin collection secreted in their property, and if he helps, Fool will be able to pay for his mother’s treatment as well as pay their rent. Of course, the landlords are anything but normal and their house of horrors is protected by a guard dog and filled with levers, trap doors, automatic shutters, intercoms, a folding staircase, and something unspeakable in the cellar. Will Fool be able to navigate this maze, grab the gold coins and save his family from homelessness and death?
The People Under The Stairs is a twisted fairytale, a modern-day Hansel And Gretel meets a contemporary Robin Hood with a Christmas Carol-esque comment about greedy rich people hoarding their money and living in relative squalor. This is also an allegory about the wealthy feeding off the poor (quite literally here). Fool’s dying mother and sister are the last family in the “Lennox Avenue” building, which is going to be torn down in order to build condominiums. Along with the burglary and revenge narrative, we’re therefore offered commentary on slumlords living off poor people’s misery, gentrification, an uneven distribution of wealth, income disparity between class and race, and medical inequality. I didn’t really care about all the subtext as a kid, I was just happy seeing a child close to my age having a filmic adventure, but decades after first watching this film, it’s now an obvious exploration and viewpoint on various socio-political issues that sadly haven’t changed. This movie is therefore, something deeper and more meaningful when watching as an adult. One thing I didn’t notice as a kid was the quick reference to the first Iraq war on a TV set in the basement. Later on in the film, Fool throws a brick down a chimney and says “I guess it’s one of those smart bricks” (alluding to Operation Desert Storm’s “smart bombs” going down a chimney). It falls short of a concrete opinion on the matter but it’s pretty funny nevertheless.
Wes Craven’s usual upbeat, slightly tongue-in-cheek fun of Scream and his Red Eye thrills are both present here, offering us a mixture of comedy and horror. With topics such as child abuse, kidnapping, cannibalism, torture, maiming, murder, incest, and possibly rape, these aren’t subjects that are normally described as enjoyable, but thanks to the camera angles, editing, acting, and overall tone, this story is nothing like it could be. The audience don’t see the worst of what’s going on, and along with the mood which isn’t too serious, the end result is a fun-filled thriller peppered with dark comedy, rather than a potentially depressing horror-drama.
From the disguised reconnaissance to the breaking in, this is a gripping and entertaining movie that pre-empted most of what’s in Don’t Breathe (2016) – a three-man team breaking and entering a home protected by a Rottweiler – aside from the blind man, it’s essentially the same film albeit with a less serious aesthetic. Don’t Breathe is a teenage horror but this is arguably a horror for younger (and intelligent) kids; it’s not too violent and not too detailed to be gruesome. The People Under The Stairs is like The Goonies of the horror genre, and a childhood favourite of mine having watched it numerous times in my tweens.
The cast are a big reason why this film works. Fresh from Moonwalker, Brandon Adams plays our central protagonist Fool. Fool is very cute and immediately likeable; you’re with him all the way because of his personality but also because of his predicament. There’s a mention that Poindexter wants to be a doctor but his family’s financial circumstances means that it’ll be unlikely regardless of his intelligence. This is another element that makes you root for him.
Wendy Robie and Everett McGill play the “Man and Woman” or “Mommy and Daddy” (the landlords) brilliantly. They are cartoonish villains (a comic book-esque Fred and Rose West or Josef Fritzel with money) and thanks to Robie and McGill, you dislike the antagonists but they’re caricatured enough so you don’t detest them with a passion. The Daddy, dressed in bondage gear, an S&M killer with a laser-sighting, is a classic character which is just on the right-side of racist, perverted yet amusing.
Wendy’s role of course, is the more varied and nuanced of the two villains. Mommy at one point, has an over-the-top outburst when she makes Alice clean up the blood on the floor and it’s wonderfully funny, but to contrast this, her knife-wielding finale is quite scary.
The pair’s imprisoned daughter Alice is played by A.J. Langer, and she acts quite subtly and sometimes seriously which could easily have been transposed to a darker-toned film. The kids in the cellar or the “people under the stairs” on the other hand, look and act like a 1980’s hair metal band.
I also have to mention that Roach (one of the escaped boys under the stairs) played by Sean Whallen, was 27 in real life and Alice played by A.J. Langer was 17. Despite their relatively old age, they were both believable as young teenagers especially alongside the real-life 12 year-old Brandon. Regardless of age, the trio make engaging and likeable heroes, that any kid will support and side with.
In terms of writing, there’s the inclusion of slang and some associated wordplay. When Fool says to Alice “Have you never seen a brother before?”, she replies “I never had a brother”, which is quite funny but also poignant. There’s also the classic line by Fool “Your father’s one sick mother, you know that? …Actually your mother’s one sick mother too!” which is simply brilliant. And Daddy’s misinterpretation of “Run Fool!” is just genius.
Another great line is “no wonder there’s no money in the ghetto” which Fool exclaims as he looks at the piles of coins and bags of cash strewn over the basement floor. Ving Rhames’ Leroy character arguably has all the best comedic lines: “13th birthdays are unlucky; too old to get tit, too young to get ass” and when speaking about Ruby’s penchant for Tarot reading amidst her family’s impending eviction, Leroy says “I guess she didn’t see that coming”. This has a lot to do with Rhames’ delivery of these lines. He’s another great actor from this talented cast.
Making a film about black thieves could have been a racist stereotype but there’s Spenser, a white friend of Leroy’s which stops this from happening. Having watched a few Wes Craven interviews over the years, I’ve noted his genuinely liberal opinions and his interest in everything from politics, psychology to mysticism. In “Fear, Freud & Class Warfare” (an interview with Wes Craven included in the Arrow Video blu-ray) Craven states that The People Under The Stairs was based on a real story about a burglary which inadvertently uncovered two children who were imprisoned in a wealthy white community. Wes liked the irony of a superficially “perfect”, white middle-class or upper-class community hiding a secret, meaning the “bad” people aren’t necessarily those from the “outside”.
Of course, this incident only inspired People Under The Stairs. With a coin collection almost as big as Scrooge McDuck’s, everything here is heightened and far from realistic. Despite the cartoonish aspects of the film, we have many serious political opinions juxtaposed with the movie’s look. During the finale, we see the literal waste of money being redistributed by blowing-up the evil (and racist) rich people’s home, the cannibalism serves as a representation of what the rich do to the poor (in the end the tables are turned and we’re given a pre-“Eat The Rich” meme-style ending), and the brother and sister incest twist is possibly a comment on rich folk’s attempts at “pure” bloodlines.
The People Under The Stairs is a feel-good movie; the baddies get their comeuppance and everything is made equal. With the added subtext however (also possibly pre-empting Parasite‘s top floor/bottom floor class system metaphor) this is something more than just your regular teen-horror. Yes, this is fantastic late-night viewing with a bowl of popcorn and the lights turned off but it’s also chock-full of opinion. So don’t forget about…
The People Under You.