Class war and hidden secrets in Wes Craven’s twisted fairy tale.
Wes Craven was always one of the most frustrating directors in horror cinema. You really never know what you’ll get from him – an unexpected sleeper classic, a fun romp or a complete stinker. The People Under the Stairs has the potential to be the latter – made in the wake of the lacklustre Shocker, at a time when the genre was generally at a low ebb and offering a potentially awkward mix of horror, comedy and social commentary, you can definitely see where it could have gone disastrously wrong. That it doesn’t for the most part is a relief.
The film opens up with thirteen-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams), whose family – including a sick mother – are about to be evicted from their slum home so that their cruel landlords (an unnamed couple played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, who had, of course, previously played a dysfunctional married couple in Twin Peaks) can tear the building down and build offices. Fool is convinced by his sister’s criminal boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) to help him break into the landlord’s mansion, where they are rumoured to have a fortune in gold coins stashed away. Seeing it as his only chance to find the money for rent and medical bills, the boy agrees and joins Leroy and partner Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) in the planned burglary. After a failed attempt to pass Fool off as a Bear Scout to gain entry, Spencer finally tricks his way in while disguised as a gas board worker. Fool and Leroy follow when they see the Woman leaving, only to find themselves trapped by a ferocious dog and the returning couple. Worse still, Spencer is dead and there are weird creatures living in the basement.
Soon, Leroy is also killed and Fool is left alone, rescued by the couple’s ‘daughter’ Alice (A.J. Langer) and Roach (Sean Whalen), a mute boy who lives in the crawlspace of the house, having escaped the basement. It turns out that the demented couple has kidnapped several children to raise as their own, only to confine them to the cellar after they broke the rules of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ – but not before cutting off the body part responsible for the offence. These teenagers have long reverted to a feral state, starved and kept locked away while the couple disposes of anyone who sees too much. Realising that Fool is at large, they set out to find him, while he attempts to rescue Alice from the confines of the house and her insane ‘parents’.
At first glance, The People Under the Stairs is a fascinating, fairly successful slice of social horror. It wears its political ideals as openly as a George Romero film (though with more subtlety and nuance, thank God) as the film rips into the class system and social inequality in America. The film markedly compares the miserable lives of the slum residents, who live in overcrowded, crime-ridden buildings and are effectively doomed to a life of poverty and petty criminality, with the luxurious lives of those who own the buildings and see their tenants as barely even human, unwilling to be even slightly flexible when they struggle to pay their bills. The film’s contrast between the black underclass of the ghetto and the white upper class – an upper class morally and mentally rotted through in-breeding, it seems – is present throughout the film, though for the most part Craven avoids overdoing it. But this is an indictment of Reagan/Bush era America (notably when Fool stumbles upon a TV, it’s showing the start of the first Gulf War) and the inequalities of US capitalism, where someone can be left to die if they can’t afford medical bills. The class war runs throughout the story, Fool being the unpleasant reminder of the real world that enters the shuttered house of the couple, and finally leads up to a final confrontation when the oppressed finally rise up against the oppressors.
But for all its overt political stance, The People Under the Stairs is, at heart, a dark fairy tale, following the classic structure almost to the letter. We first see the Man and Woman as they plot in their apparently luxurious home, huddled by the fire to discuss evicting their tenants and making more money before being cruel to Alice, the put-upon daughter/princess of the story. We forgive Fool for his involvement in the burglary because, like Jack stealing the Golden Goose, the ends justify the means and right is ultimately on his side. And like the heroic prince, Fool will return to the castle to rescue the princess, assisted by those whom the wicked witch has imprisoned and finally rousing the cowed villagers to action. This is, essentially, a world outside reality, where the powerful can act with impunity, even if that involves stealing children, and there is no authority to stop them. In fact, the two scenes involving the police are a rather misguided intrusion from the real world into this story (and also bring a reality that suggests that the rain of cash that the film ends with won’t stay in the hands of the townsfolk for long).
The fairytale structure is enhanced by the visual look of the film – the maze-like home of the couple is closer to a castle than a house, complete with electronic ‘drawbridges’, and like many a fairytale castle is soon shown to be a rather run-down place, reflecting the moral decay of its residents. As in many a fairytale villain, the couple is fixated with money but never actually seems to spend any of it – they keep their treasure locked away in the basement, to be counted and gloated over as gleefully as by any villain from a Sinbad movie. Even the fact that Fool and his cohorts have invaded the ‘castle’ in search of gold rather than cash refers back to fairytale stories.
Wendy Robie is the classical Wicked Stepmother (in traditional style, it’s revealed that she isn’t really Alice’s mother), complete with coiffed hair, green dress and wicked witch eyebrows (of course, the latter are currently the height of fashion with teenage girls across the UK…) and a hysterical, cruel voice, while Everett McGill is the lumbering, angry Giant of Jack and the Beanstalk – you almost expect him to shout fee fi fo fum and at one point he seems to be sniffing out his prey through the scent of their blood. Sometimes dressing – for no explained reason – in a gimp suit and assisted by his ‘hell hound’, he’s a clumsy, comical villain, his anger helping to destroy his home as he blasts away at the walls with his shotgun and always being beaten and battered by his enemies. This might be a particularly grim fairytale, but it’s also often a very cartoonish one. Mostly, this odd clash of styles works, and it’s the central performances of Robie and McGill that allow that to happen. Their wildly over the top performances and the natural ease that comes from having worked with someone for a few years makes their characters both hilarious and chilling and both know exactly when to reign it in and when to let it loose. They are helped by Adams and Langer, who make for completely sympathetic and personable heroes – he the plucky everyman, she the innocent princess he has to rescue.
There are enough elements in The People Under the Stairs to make it a forgotten horror masterpiece, but the film has the tendency to pull the rug from under itself. The afore-mentioned ‘real world’ intrusions are unwelcome, and sometimes the comedy is a little too broad, but it’s ultimately the titular characters who blow a hole in things. The idea of kidnapped and mutilated kids kept locked in a basement for years is scary enough – there is no need to make them into horror characters. Yet that’s what the film does, their faces given a white, ghoulish make-up that is fairly demonic. It’s extremely damaging because (a) it effectively monsterises them too much, making it harder to see them as human victims, and (b) it makes no sense because Roach still looks human. It seems a little thing, but it bugged me throughout and I think was a major mistake.
Yet despite this, The People Under the Stairs is considerably better than it ought to be. It’s arguably Wes Craven’s last great (or even good) film and shows that when he really tried – or at least when everything comes together – he was up there with the best of the horror greats.
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