“May they burn in hell.” —Wendy Robie, The People Under The Stairs
Many critics—myself among them—tend to comb through horror movies looking for political subtext or metaphor, sometimes because it’s clearly present (see Romero, George) and sometimes because assigning some meaning to these films forgives a lot of the gruesome mayhem they put out into the world. Wes Craven’s debut feature The Last House On The Left may be the ultimate litmus test in this regard: If you like it, it’s a harrowing reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, informed by the unadorned images of violence and torture coming back from the Vietnam War. If you don’t, it’s a crude, pitiless, despicable rape-revenge tale that presents the assault and murder of two young girls with a near-pornographic gaze. For the record, I fall in the former camp, and present as evidence a few of Craven’s subsequent efforts, particularly 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, about the mutant survivors of a nuclear-testing area, and 1991’s The People Under The Stairs, about the metaphorically loaded conflict between gold-grubbing landlords and their black tenants. In both cases, Craven didn’t make the mistake of putting his politics across so ambiguously again.
Like John Carpenter’s science-fiction satire They Live two years earlier, The People Under The Stairs performs a bitter postmortem on the Reagan ’80s as a decade of sharp divisions along class and racial fault lines. Both films throw their sympathy behind the dirt-poor denizens of Los Angeles: It’s possible to imagine the evictees from Craven’s film—whose lease terms make late payments as steep as the rent—winding up in the tent cities of Carpenter’s film. And while Carpenter’s black comedy plays up the lemming-like conformity of the era, they both present the ruling class as overlords of a subhuman kind, be they incestuous, murderous cannibals or aliens in a more presentable form. At heart, they’re about a decade where the rich got richer and the poor got deader.
The difference is that They Live marries a great concept to kick-ass execution, commenting slyly on the brain-rotting omnipresence of consumer culture while having Roddy Piper and Keith David slug each other in an alley for half a reel. With The People Under The Stairs, there’s more of a gap between Craven’s nasty little metaphor and his ability to bring it across—though the cheery psychosis of his Ronald-and-Nancy duo, played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, takes it some of the way, and his Rube Goldberg contraption of a setting takes it a little farther still. Craven’s most interesting films have always been based on his own scripts—The Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Shocker—and The People Under The Stairs seems to be a rewrite or two away from greatness, with the structure of a devastating horror-satire without the content of one.
Casting a so-so child actor in the lead does the film few favors. Brandon Adams stars as “Fool,” a resourceful ghetto-dweller nicknamed after the tarot card that suggests his perilous future. With his family facing eviction and unable to afford care for his deathly ill mother, Fool gets roped into a scheme with his sister’s friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) to rob the dreaded Robesons, their greedy landlords. Introduced picking the buckshot out of his dinner, “Daddy” Robeson (McGill) is a gun-toting lunatic, and “Mommy” (Robie) is his Lady MacBeth, both gleeful sadists whose dark secrets are the stuff of urban legend. When Fool and Leroy break into the house to get the Robesons’ treasure—and it’s literally treasure, a pile of gold coins and icons—they encounter a booby-trapped security system and the moans of other tenants who are kept in a labyrinthine holding pen under the stairs.
Craven introduces a few other sad creatures into this scenario, including the Robesons’ sad but mostly compliant daughter (A.J. Langer) and a chaos agent in “Roach” (Sean Whalen), a wily prisoner who has escaped into the walls. For Fool, the people under the stairs are another threat in a house full of them, the desperate hordes lurking like zombies behind thin slats of plywood. But these zombies are like Romero’s in Land Of The Dead or the mutants in The Hills Have Eyes, victims who have been transformed into nightmarish freaks. People buying a ticket to see The People Under The Stairs got a thought-provoking bait-and-switch: The beasties they were expecting—the trolls under the bridge—are the ones that need freeing from the haunted house.
But enough about the metaphor. What about the movie? Whether Craven intended it or not, the action in The People Under The Stairs is basically Home Alone in reverse and for adults, with Fool as Macaulay Culkin, breaking into a house, and the Robesons as the pratfall-ing Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, constantly getting smacked around by their own contraptions. It’s a funny idea only half-realized, perhaps because Craven was trying not to make an out-and-out comedy, but the sight of a bloodied-but-not-bowed McGill blasting up the walls with a shotgun like an overzealous rat exterminator gives the film whatever kick it has. His mission is to hoard and destroy: The Robesons certainly aren’t spending a single gold coin updating their dilapidated funeral home, and their only real pleasure is hunting for sport with human quarry.
The People Under The Stairs ends lamely, with a comeuppance that’s supposed to be a crowd-pleasing class/racial revolution, but winds up relieving Fool of his movie-long mission to get out of a sticky situation. The concept of poor black people rising up against their white oppressors—as resonant as an apartheid allegory as it is for the social immobility of black people—injects a social significance that horror movies today seem to dodge at all costs. Over the last couple of decades, The People Under The Stairs has shown some staying power in the culture, inspiring a hip-hop outfit of the same name, and it’s distinctly of a time when left-leaning filmmakers were venting their anger over a lost decade. It also affirms Craven as carrier of the Romero torch, a genre director who likes to operate on one more than one level. But there’s a lesson here: You can program meaning into horror, but you have to program some thrills, too.