Directed by: Wes Craven.
Written by: Wes Craven.
Starring: Brandon Adams (Poindexter "Fool" Williams), Everett McGill (Man / "Daddy" / Eldon Robeson), Wendy Robie (Woman / "Mommy" / Mrs. Robeson), A. J. Langer (Alice Robeson), Ving Rhames (Leroy), Bill Cobbs (Grandpa Booker), Kelly Jo Minter (Ruby), Sean Whalen (Roach).
Wes Craven always said he wanted to do more kinds of films that “just horror” – but Meryl Streep Oscar vehicle Music of the Heart (1999) aside, he never really did. He was pigeonholed into the horror genre from his brilliant debut – Last House on the Left (1972) onwards, and because he was so good at making horror films, he just kept right on doing them. Yet, perhaps that desire to do different kinds of films accounts for why Craven was so successful in horror – because many of his films either have different genres mixed in with the horror, and are different from each other. What holds them together is that Craven really did excel in tapping into something primal in his best, scariest films – something truly unsettling.
The People Under the Stairs, Craven’s 1991 film is not one of his best films. It’s made in the period after A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – his out-and-out scariest film and before Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), in which Craven kicked off his wonder meta-horror phase (made more popular with Scream), in which Craven’s output was inconsistent to say the least. At its best, The People Under the Stairs is unsettling and freaky – and has a political point-of-view addressing class and race (a rarity in horror films). The film is also a bizarre comedy though, and at times it goes so far over-the-top in terms of being goofy that it takes you out of the movies, and doesn’t just break the tension, it shatters it completely.
The film is about a young, black kid named Fool (Brandon Adams) living in a poor neighborhood – specifically in a rundown apartment building, with his mother lying in bed suffering from cancer, and a sister already with a kid, and working as a prostitute. They missed their last rent payment – and a weird clause says if they do that, they either have to pay triple the rent, or face eviction. They are the last tenants in a building their landlords want to tear down to build condos. The one chance he has to earn the money is to accompany Leroy (Ving Rhames) on a job – they’re going to break into Fool’s landlord’s house, and steal some valuable coins. Leroy, his partner and Fool all get inside the house – but what they find there is not what they expected. The landlords are a deranged couple who call each other Mommy and Daddy (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie – fresh from playing another strange couple on TV’s Twin Peaks) and who are clearly demented. That doesn’t even mention their daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer) – or the other people in the house.
At its best, The People Under the Stairs can be an extremely creepy movie. Like the recent Don’t Breathe – a film that shares more than a couple plot points with The People Under the Stairs – the film uses the space in the house remarkably well, and sets up one creepy moment after the next. Unlike Don’t Breathe though, the film gets increasingly silly as it starts to reveal what it’s really about, and makes little sense on basic levels when you think about it. Once the secrets get revealed, the film goes from creepy to rather silly.
Having said this, there is still much to like about the film. I do love Wendy Robie’s performance as “Mommy”, who goes wildly over-the-top, but does so in a way that doesn’t make her any less scary or creepy – both rather increases that. Poor McGill isn’t so lucky, as the movie requires him to don a leather “gimp” suit, and get hit in the balls a few times for laughs. At his best, his performance is demented and creepy – at its worst, it’s just goofy – and that hurts the film through no fault of McGill’s.
Still, I do appreciate much of the film. The setup is good, and there are fine moments throughout. I also do appreciate that Craven is actually trying to address issues of race in the film – something that horror movies (still) do all too infrequently. And perhaps we can chalk the film up as a learning experience for Craven. His next film would be New Nightmare – which has its own funny moments, but is better integrated into the whole – and Scream was just five years away. No, The People Under the Stairs isn’t one of Craven’s best films – but it’s an interesting one just the same.