Wes Craven is known for his classic films in the genre, things like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left and Scream, and is also known for the ones that didn’t turn out so good, like Cursed, My Soul to Take and Vampire in Brooklyn. This is kind of a shame, because there are a lot of good movies that fall somewhere in the middle.
The People Under the Stairs is one of the best examples of this. It’s strong, compelling, not at the level of quality of The Serpent and the Rainbow, but not at the quality of Deadly Friend, either. This is a feature that definitely is a lot of fun and needs more love. At the very least, it needs to be seen. Especially because it is just as relevant now as when it was first released.
There’s a notion people try to toss around that racism is dead in America. People actually say that. Whether they desperately want it to be true or they just want to ignore the problem, either way it doesn’t change the fact that they’re very clearly wrong. I’m not going to talk explicitly about things that have happened in our culture recently but there’s enough going on just about everywhere to prove that racism is alive and well.
There was a period from the late eighties into the mid nineties where Craven did films with largely African American casts, lasting from The Serpent and the Rainbow to Vampire in Brooklyn. And while racism was a small factor in each of them, it was truly at the forefront of The People Under the Stairs.
Our hero is a young African American boy named Fool, living in the Los Angeles ghetto. He and his whole family are poor and when he learns that everyone in his housing development is being evicted, it sort of falls on him to save everything. The landlords are upper class white people, the richest of the rich, and they are absolute monsters. They’re just as sinister as Freddy Krueger, but with none of his charm.
They’re not a fun kind of evil. Instead, what makes them fun to watch is that their insanity only grows and unravels as the movie goes on. We see that they’re bad right off the bat, but we don’t know just how bad. And just when they couldn’t get any worse, we find out something new about them.
For one, there’s the fact that despite being husband and wife, they are also brother and sister. They have a child that is not theirs, and the basement is full of their rejected children, the ones that committed damnable offenses.
These people are uber-fundamentalists to the most extreme degree, there is no such thing as any kind of forgiveness in their eyes and when one of their stolen children sees, speaks or hears evil they simply cut off the offending body part and leave them to rot in the cellar.
There’s a lot of social commentary packed into The People Under the Stairs. It’s as much about the upper and lower class as it is about race, and the two things are not entirely separate to begin with, which is another thing the movie points out. Most billionaires are white, whereas too many black families struggle to break into even the middle class. There’s no reason things should be the way they are, and that’s what not only this feature but the best horror in general tries to point out. Something needs to change.
In the film, there’s a triumphant moment when Fool gains the upper hand and forces the couple to show just how insane and evil they truly are in front of a large group of people. In fact, the entire climax–which is for the most part standard fare as the villains are creatively dispatched–plays out in front of an audience.
The balance of power shifts, it’s back in the hands of the people who deserve it and the landlords are brought to justice. In a movie filled with insane booby traps, men in gimp suits and deformed and disfigured people who live in the walls, this might actually be the only unrealistic thing.
In real life, especially now, the respective media is always there to defend the individual or sweep the whole thing under the rug when a person with enough money says or does something to show who they really are. Getting people like that to expose themselves really doesn’t mean anything anymore, and that’s why we don’t get to experience the movie’s ending in real life.
Naturally, The People Under the Stairs is heavy-handed, but it sort of needs to be. That’s also why the irreverent sense of humor and complete over-the-top nature of the antagonists all seem to work. Everything in People Under the Stairs is heightened, and that’s what makes it work so well. It’s a shame that this one tends to go unnoticed in Craven’s filmography because at the very least it’s incredibly entertaining.