On Wes Craven’s commentary track for the Scream! Factory Blu-ray of his horror film The People Under The Stairs, the writer-director says the movie was inspired in part by a dream he had one night, and in part by a news item he read about a seemingly respectable family who’d kept their children locked up for their entire lives. The feral kids were found when a neighbor called the police to report a pair of dark-skinned burglars breaking into the house. Craven savored the irony: a perceived threat to a placid middle-class neighborhood leading to the discovery of a more insidious evil. And he connected the story to his vision of a house that looks unassuming outside but inside reveals a seemingly endless string of secret chambers and passages.
The People Under The Stairs was a surprise hit when it came out in the fall of 1991, but didn’t draw a lot of critical attention. Its wild tonal shifts and dissimilarity to Craven’s most popular film, A Nightmare On Elm Street, were a little confusing—especially at the time when mainstream American horror was in a creative slump that made genuine ambition harder to discern. Craven’s script follows a winding path, starting with an impoverished Los Angeles kid named “Fool” (played by Brandon Adams), who joins his criminal neighbor Leroy (Ving Rhames) on a quest to retrieve a rumored cache of gold from the suburban home of their greedy landlords, the Robesons. Inside the house, Fool and Leroy find a vicious attack dog, a skittish pre-teen girl named Alice (A.J. Langer), and a horde of freakishly pale cannibals in the basement. They also find the Robesons: a psychotic brother-and-sister act, with the prim, hyper-religious disciplinarian “Mommy” (Wendy Robie) giving orders to the leather-clad, ill-tempered “Daddy” (Everett McGill).
The plot is hard to get a handle on at first. When it’s following Fool, The People Under The Stairs looks like it’s going to be a socially conscious rags-to-riches caper picture. When it’s exploring the dynamic between Mommy and Alice—as the latter avoids the horrors of the basement by meekly doing everything her crackpot guardian says—it’s more of a disturbing gothic melodrama, exposing the evils of domestic abuse. And when the cannibals start creeping through the walls and grabbing at the heroes, the movie is like a George Romero zombie epic, right down to the heavily metaphorical quasi-fortress where the humans hole up.
In retrospect, it should’ve been more obvious what Craven was up to here. The flickering green footage from the first Gulf War on the Robesons’ TV—coupled with the depiction of them as a wealth-hoarding perversion of the typical upstanding suburban couple—marks the movie as a satire. And if the imagery isn’t a tip-off, Robie and McGill’s scenery-gobbling performances are plenty glaring. While Adams appears to be the hero of a kids’ adventure, and Langer’s aptly named Alice is living through a harrowingly surreal psychological thriller, Mommy and Daddy are playing out the kind of cartoonish parody of conservatism more common in the previous decade, when genre filmmakers puckishly subverted the Reagan-era value system.
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It’s that intuitive fusion of whiplash-inducing plot twists and political anger that makes The People Under The Stairs so fascinating, even when the humor’s too blunt or the scares too soft. The movie is dotted with moments that are grotesque and/or hilarious—like Fool finding a pile of dead flies when he first enters the Robesons’ house, or Alice failing to escape when she slips on a puddle of blood, or the hungry hands reaching through the Robesons’ wall grates, or Daddy fooling the police into thinking he’s normal by greeting them in a golf cap—but there’s real bile roiling beneath every gag. In the Blu-ray commentary, Craven refers to the Robesons’ house as representing “the whole society of the United States,” from the dangerously deprived to the cruelly authoritarian. And while the movie’s Mommy and Daddy come across as buffoons, Craven never wants to let his audience forget that they’re doing actual harm.