The Film: The People Under the Stairs (1991)
The Principles: Written and Directed by Wes Craven Acted by Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, and Sean Whalen
The Premise: A young boy breaks into his landlord’s house to steal a treasure trove of gold coins in order to save his family from being evicted. Unfortunately, the couple inhabiting the house are the craziest people on the planet. They’ve booby trapped the entire place, and it turns out they also have been kidnapping children in the pursuit of forming the perfect family.
Is It Good?: It’s a bucket of fun. The People Under the Stairs is one of Wes Craven’s attempts at making a horror film aimed at a much younger audience (along with Deadly Friend and Swamp Thing), but he never lets that mindset tone down the horror elements of the movie. There’s plenty of grisly bits and genuine creepiness to be had, but there’s also a clear and present sense of over-the-top ridiculousness. The house that the film takes place in is like Wile E. Coyote’s family mansion, with stairs that turn into ramps, electrified doorknobs, and other assorted contraptions. And lead villains Daddy (Everett McGill) and Mommy (Wendy Robie) are cartoonishly evil in the best of ways. Daddy spends a good chunk of the movie dressed up in a full-body leather suit (predating Pulp Fiction infamous Gimp, which makes for a wonderfully twisted connection to Ving Rhames) running around the house and blowing holes in the walls with his shotgun. You can tell that these two had a devilishly good time playing these wackos.
Though Craven’s heart is in the right place when it comes to the film’s commentary about gentrification, there’s still moments when it’s very clear an older white man is writing dialogue for a very young black actor. It’s not awful, but it’s certainly noticeable. Thankfully, Craven draws heavily upon his own childhood of religious oppression when it comes to the character of Alice, the daughter of the two villains. Alice is played convincingly by A.J. Langer, and she’s one of the sadder characters in Craven’s body of work.
Then there’s the titular people under the stairs, the result of Mommy and Daddy being unable to find a son who would behave properly. It’s great how Craven pulls the old “the monsters are the heroes” bit with these characters, especially in the form of Roach (Sean Whalen). It’s always nice when Craven’s films really register with the outcasts and the mistreated in the audience, and The People Under the Stairs might be his most blatant (but still rewarding) example of that.
Not to mention that the film is surprisingly humorous in both dark and pure slapstick ways. Everett McGill gets bashed on the head on numerous occasions, and his facial reactions wouldn’t look out of place with cartoon birds circling around his head. Here’s a little taste of the humor in store for you if you decide to seek this one out:
Random Anecdotes: Actors Everett McGill and Wendy Robie also played a bizarro couple in David Lynch’s seminal Twin Peaks television series. No gimp suits in that one though.
Ving Rhames’ incredulous response of, “Maybe the president will make me Secretary of Pussy,” never fails to make me laugh.
This is the first film I remember seeing in its entirety on TNT’s MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs. That show is yet another integral piece in the puzzle of my formative horror fandom. “Four stars. Check it out.”
Cinematic Soulmates: Spider Baby, The Unseen, Home Alone