If you wish to go to the current Fangoria site, you may click the top logo, "Home" or "News" links. Or click here.
Quite recently, a blog went up on FANGORIA taking a handful of legendary horror directors to task for essentially riding the waves of their legacy and failing to continuously and contemporarily put out excellent work. No doubt, it’s an interesting theory worth debating and investigating. However in my eyes, its author made one fatal mistake (and no, it wasn’t that confrontational opening line—although that was slightly devoid of taste). Nick sought to claim that Wes Craven neither is not, nor ever was, great. I’m under the belief that no matter how you feel about many of his films, that’s simply a falsehood. So with seven weeks until the filmmaker’s latest, MY SOUL TO TAKE, hits theaters, I’ve decided to look at one of his movies a week (excluding the landmarks like LAST HOUSE, NIGHTMARE and SCREAM) to showcase that even during misfires and his lesser praised works, Craven displays talent, chops and incredible imagination. Read on for week one—my look at THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS.
Having impulsively decided to go on this venture earlier this week, I needed something easily accessible for my first piece and, thankfully, Craven’s 1991 darkly comedic and socially aware THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is on Netflix Instant. In many ways, STAIRS is a great jumping off point for something of this nature. While not a perfect film (and really, what is?), it’s a wonderful display of many of Craven’s strengths, themes and interests: the darker side of suburbia and parenting, a wicked sense of humor and a bit of commentary on the world around us. Plus it has Roach (Sean Whalen) and Ving Rhames.
I hadn’t seen the film in what must be over 10 years and even so, I can’t ever be sure I’d seen it in its entirety at all. As a child, just the title (it really is an excellent name for a movie) conjured up such thoughts in my head that I dreaded the experience of sitting through it. It’s a shame because I’m sure had I ever gotten the gall to actually dive in, I would’ve loved it in my adolescence just as much as I now do today.
As a quick refresher, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS follows young 13-year-old Pointdexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams), who’s part of the last remaining family in a tenement building waiting to be torn down so expensive, gentrified condos can be built in its place. Along with his sister, Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter), and terminally ill mother, Fool is facing eviction from the building’s owners: a money-hungry and upper-class pair of siblings, the Robesons, from the outlying suburbs who have little sympathy for the members of Fool’s community. Fed up and trying to claim his manhood, Fool accompanies Ruby’s friend Leroy (Rhames) to the Robesons’ residence to try and intimidate them into backing down and also to rob the place of the gold coins they’re sitting on. What they find, of course, is something a bit scarier than grade-A snobbery.
Craven had experimented with humor amidst truly sick situations as far back as his first effort, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, with its two bumbling policemen (not exactly successful), and most notably with the iconic Freddy Krueger (where it works beautifully). His comedic sensibilities are on full blast in THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, and not just to entertain, but to also highlight the absurdity of what the film is very much about. Where THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT addressed the senseless violence of the Vietnam War and the youth of the country paying for it, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS takes on the senselessness and horrors of classism and the disgustingly giant gap between the lower and upper tiers of society.
The Robesons, who are often referred to as Mom and Dad and/or Man and Woman in the film, live in a beautiful upscale home away from the grime and worry of the inner city, but like many members of the elite and seemingly perfect, they house terrible things. The Robesons hoard the money they cheat their residents out of, don’t contribute back to society in any way and what’s worse, engage in harrowing child abuse activities. In their demented search for a perfect kid (one who sees no evil, speaks no evil, etc.), they discard those they dislike, throwing them in the basement (and under the stairs) to fend for themselves. Mom and Dad often cut out tongues and sever ears, depending on what rule was defied, and feed the children scraps of murdered snoopers.
Aside from the very obvious disconnect between races and classes that’s present in the film, Craven is taking a look at the faults of many aristocratic families and their lack of interest in actual family. Mom and Dad are essentially looking for their trophy child, unconcerned with warmth, love and what goes into raising one. The kids that don’t work out are discarded and uncared for, and while living in the basement with severed body parts is an extreme way of expressing it, those “people under the stairs” represent troubled children whose growth and development are stunted by their lack of a decent upbringing in a seemingly decent environment.
Where PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS truly exceeds is the line it straddles between comedy and horror, and absurdity and terror. As Fool, the Robesons’ latest child Alice (AJ Langer) and the discarded Roach navigate the house trying to escape through wall fixtures and the basement, the movie takes on a cartoonish tone. The fixtures are incredibly mazelike, the musical cues are goofy and the house is booby-trapped complete with stairs that transform into a slide and an electrocuting doorknob. As I watched the movie with friends, it became a running joke every time someone got caught and fell down the stairs, or any instance there was another chase through the walls. Does it get repetitive? Yes, but that’s the point. It’s contributing to the overall point of absurdity. These members of the lower class are going through mazelike challenges, running in circles and climbing up stairs to only fall down again as they’re lost in debt and giving their money to those above them, all while people like the Robesons refuse to let anyone into their exclusive circle of privilege (taken to the extreme by the incestuous relationship the brother and sister share).
Does THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS suffer from doses of late ’80s/early ’90s cheese? At times. Do the titular freaks look more like scruffy metal-heads and punks than a menacing threat? Yes. Is it quite silly at the end when the “people under the stairs” escape and function normally in the ensuing celebration? Is it also quite silly that that one long-haired abandoned child gives a heartwarming winking smile to Fool at the end? Of course! As I said, the film isn’t perfect, but then again who cares? In my mind, Craven’s ability to come up with such a great, extreme and imaginative representation of the issues he was attempting to discuss, along with crafting a film that probably wouldn’t get made today (Dad, in a GIMP outfit, chases kids with a loaded shotgun. That kind of danger and oddness only existed for movie kids in another time), far outweighs its faults and makes it a fun, thoughtful and often overlooked flick. And besides, what’s a better ending than exploding their foundation and distributing the wealth to those who need it?
You can read the blog that incited my seven week response right here, as well as check out my initial idea and drop me suggestions for what Craven films you'd like to see me tackle here.
Bloody Blogs -
JOIN OUR COMMUNITY AND BE THE FIRST TO KNOW ABOUT NEWS, CONTESTS, EVENTS AND MORE!
All contents © 2011 Fangoria Entertainment