I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The People Under the Stairs

tn_puts“Your father is one sick mother, you know that? Actually, your mother’s one sick mother too.”

I like THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS because it’s Wes Craven’s feverish impressionist portrait of American economic inequality circa 1991. It lacks the precise metaphoric aim and pulp effectiveness of THEY LIVE, but it’s Craven’s version of that same type of genre-film-as-angry-shout-at-The-Man.

In fact, one of the villains is even credited as “The Man” (Everett McGill, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY). He and “The Woman” (Wendy Robie, THE GLIMMER MAN) own a big old house inherited from their family, living off of the rent from the “half of the ghetto” that they own. One of their tenants is our 13 year old protagonist Poindexter Williams (Brandon Adams, GHOST IN THE MACHINE – and this kid looks really familiar for some reason), who goes by the nickname Fool after the Tarot card of some joker trapped between a fire and a cliff. That’s where he is now, because at his back is having to pay triple rent or get kicked out of the apartment so the Man and Woman can razed it and build condos, at his front is his sister’s friend Spencer (Ving Rhames, FORCE OF EXECUTION) trying to pressure him into breaking into the slum lords’ house to steal gold coins they can use to pay the rent and for mom’s cancer treatment.

When I’ve been priced out of apartments or seen beloved local businesses pushed out to be replaced by condos or a Chase Bank or a CVS, I always wonder if the people behind it even notice that they’re fucking us over. Does some deep down part of them understand that they are assholes who are pushing people out of their homes and destroying the culture of a neighborhood, making life worse for people they’ll never meet face to face? Or are they just clueless self-absorbed people who see the numbers and don’t even think about the human beings that are impacted?

Well, in this case they do think about the people. And they hate them. We cut to their living room one evening as The Man uses the n-word and The Woman dreams about owning buildings for “clean people.” It’s a ghoulish parody of a family discussion that plays like a cross between a nice fireside chat and that scene at the beginning of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET where Freddy builds his glove.

Hey, if people want to live better they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard just like these people did, right? Well, the property and the house – which Fool says has room for ten families in it – and the furniture and everything were all inherited. I’m sure they feel that somebody somewhere far back worked really hard to give them the right to look down on the people whose misery they profit from. But you can see why Spencer would think that stealing back was justified and the only solution to the problem and why poor Fool would find himself helping the big tough guy break into this scary place by being small enough to climb through a doggy door.

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Spencer thinks he’s bad, but he aint’ bad, he ain’t nothin. I mean, sh’mon. Oh shit – that’s where I recognize this kid Brandon Adams from! He’s in Michael Jackson’s MOONWALKER as little Michael in “Badder,” the BUGSY MALONE style all-kid remake of the BAD video. He doesn’t do any dancing in this one, because he never goes into a subway station or anything. But he represents a youthful innocence in the middle of all this madness, whether it’s the crackhouse-like situation in his building or the horrific crimes he discovers going on inside the house he breaks into. He goes there as a thief, ends up as a savior, like sort of happens in that other Tarot-inspired movie, HOLY MOUNTAIN.

The most traditional tension in the movie comes from the break-in. Fool doesn’t really want to be there, but he’s trespassing in this big empty house, tip toeing quietly, hoping no one is home. And he discovers that someone is home. Alot of people are home. That’s when it gets weird.

See, there’s depravity barely concealed behind the Man and Woman’s ultra-thin veneer of Ron and Nancy wholesomeness. Their daughter Alice (A.J. Langer, ESCAPE FROM L.A.) has never been outside the house, like an indoor cat. She tries to be a normal little girl even though her chores include scrubbing blood off the floor and then she gets yelled at if it gets on her white dress.

And they have a whole lot more dependents in the home, mutants or inbreds or something, imprisoned in the basement. One of them named Roach (Sean Whalen, JERSEY BOYS) has gone rogue and climbs around inside the walls. They hunt him like a rat but can’t seem to catch him. Being assholes, they have a framed cross stitch of the saying “Children should be seen and not heard.” Roach is the opposite. They can’t spot him but they keep hearing him in there.

When the Man and Woman discover burglars in their home it’s like a fun opportunity. They sic their dog (named Prince, but probly not after the singer) and chase them around, shooting through the walls, treating it as sport. They’re happy to murder intruders and dispose of them. They feel free to indulge in their chosen lifestyle behind closed doors, but they must avoid police attention. The Woman has a counter-intuitive rule: “Never shoot your gun outside!”

Most of the movie occurs in the house, first with Fool being chased and trying to escape, then coming back and trying to bust Alice out. The house is equipped with hidden passages, secret weapons caches and stairs that flatten out into slides. There’s much blocking of doors and climbing through windows, vents and crawlspaces.

To give you an idea where America was on race relations in 1991, the Rodney King beating happened 8 months before this movie came out. Although these villains make their living from black people, they are afraid of them. When Fool comes to the door wearing a boy scout uniform, The Woman gets rude and scared and locks the door. “Neighborhood’s changing,” she later says. Okay, in this specific example he actually is up to something, so her suspicion is correct for once. But it’s easy to be reminded of George Zimmerman and other cowardly adults who have killed black kids and then claim to have feared for their lives.

When the Woman discovers that Alice has befriended Fool she is not happy about who’s coming to dinner. She says “We will get him out of our house! He’s filthy! He’s bad! He’s awful!” This privately held disdain for African Americans extends into her business practices and affects an entire neighborhood. When confronted by Fool’s sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter, THE PRINCIPAL, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5) about pushing the community out to build office buildings she says disgustedly, “There’s no community here. All I see are a couple of ni–” before that thing happens where suddenly a hundred people walk in from every direction, the entire neighborhood showing up en masse at the exact right moment to literally stand behind her. Something like this happened in CANDYMAN, but you mostly see it in broad, corny dramas with inspirational storylines.

That shows that old lefty Craven had an optimism that Carpenter lacked. The titleistical people under the stairs are barely treated as monsters, as you’d expect them to be. They are captives who seem to represent an oppressed under class, and they start shining lights through spaces in the boards to blind the Man and the Woman. They tear through the stairs and the walls, surrounding and outnumbering them. An uprising.

The friendship between Fool and Alice definitely implies a positive view of the future. They’re both just kids, they instantly relate and help each other, they don’t ever acknowledge race or class differences, if they notice them. We know that bigotry gets passed down through generations, but it doesn’t have to. Homophobia, for example, has greatly decreased over recent years as new batches of young people have on average been more accepting of different lifestyles than we were at their age. Alice could be the one to break the chain on the racism in this family.

And at the end they blow up the house and the money flies out the windows and chimney to all the people of the neighborhood. That shows that Craven’s dedication was more to the message than the genre. He gives it the happy ending he wants instead of the killer’s-still-out-there ambiguity that horror movies usually demand. It even gets a corny end credits rap song called “Do the Right Thing” by Redhead Kingpin.

He throws in plenty of other socio-political references, sometimes playing more like a list of things we were concerned about back then than a coherent message. A TV shows news coverage of Operation Desert Storm, and later Fool drops a brick down a chimney onto The Man’s head and quips, “Guess it was one of those smart bricks!” (If you don’t know the reference, there was famous war footage of a so-called “smart bomb” going directly into a chimney, giving the impression that the new war technology was very accurate and wasn’t killing civilians.)

They talk about “see no evil.” The Woman yells “KAKA!” instead of swearing. They act like censorial prudes, but they’re actually incestuous perverts. The Man likes to run around in a leather S&M suit, and at one point he’s grabbing his crotch while approaching his daughter. When he discovers Fool’s abandoned boy scout uniform he sniffs it. There’s a scene where police do come into the house, and as they show them around The Man is slyly hiding chains, handcuffs, weapons and a dripping head wound. But of course they’re white, they’re the landlords, so… nothing to see here, sorry to bother you, folks. Nobody notices anything odd.

So some of the references and the attitude and music are an early ’90s time capsule, very post-Reagan-and-Bush, about-to-have-Clinton type of concerns about debunking the Leave It To Beaver vision of family values. But sadly most of it is timeless. The main topic is still very current and familiar, and our current election has grabbed our faces and rubbed them back and forth in the fact that Alice and the people under the stairs have not taken over yet, we’re still besieged by shitheads carrying on in the grand traditions of their hateful ancestors. And though there’s been this idea of Trump supporters as fed up working class people, they actually average much higher income than me and my friends. They might actually be the people who own our buildings. What I’m saying is that yes, absolutely, 100% we can assume that The Man and Woman would vote Trump and wear the hats and everything.

I’ve always felt the subtext in THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS worked better than the horror, that the symbolism makes more sense than the scenario. But it’s weird and novel and Craven-y enough to be alot of fun. Most directors wouldn’t make a violent R-rated movie with a kid as the main character. And none would have the kid create a distraction by wedging gold coins into candles so that they’ll drop as the wax melts and it will sound like somebody’s counting money in the corner over there. Craven loved those boobie traps. That part made me smile.

Also there’s a part where Fool jumps out and punches The Man hard in the balls. I have always felt there wasn’t enough ball-punching in cinema. That’s a nice and direct way to stick it to The Man. I recommend THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 17th, 2016 at 10:30 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “The People Under the Stairs”

  1. caruso_stalker217

    October 17th, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    I’ve always loved this movie. It has a real Grimm Brothers thing going for it and a classic fairy tale feel. You know, but with Big Ed in a gimp suit.

  2. I was always under the impression, that this would be a good horror movie for kids (of a certain age). It has positive messages of interracial friendship, community, sticking it up to rich racists and don’t-let-shady-people-talk-you-into-doing-criminal-shit, has villains that are over the top enough to be considered as cartoony and the violence isn’t really THAT much harder than what is happening in PG and PG-13 rated kids classics like THE GOONIES, MONSTER SQUAD or HARRY POTTER (mostly the books) or the INDIANA JONES movies (which don’t really count as kids movies, but are beloved by viewers of all ages).

    It’s also very satisfying that this movie became highly appreciated before Craven’s death. It was maybe too far out for 1991, but in the last few years, it became celebrated as one of his best, mostly for all the themes and subtext.

  3. Slow clap for this review.

    This is my favorite horror movie of all time. It’s interesting you say it’s not scary because that’s probably true. I don’t get scared by horror movies so I’m not really looking for a movie to scare me. I just look for a good story like any genre and this is my favorite of horror.

    Since I saw it when I was Fool’s age, it probably contributed to my relating to the youth overpowering adults. Frankly it’s an action movie, Die Hard in a cannibal incest house. It has the manic humor of a Sam Raimi movie and the message is just so damn satisfying.

    Thank you for reviewing this one!

  4. Crushinator Jones

    October 17th, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    The “Trump voters make more money than the average voter” doesn’t mean what you think it means. More here:

    Economic Anxiety and the Limits of Data Journalism

    By James Kwak [Updated: see bottom of post.] There is an ongoing battle among the liberal intelligentsia over “economic anxiety.” The basic question is whether economic factors—loss of …

    Relevant quote:

    “Trump voters made more than the median family because Republican primary voters make more than the median family. Cruz voters’ median income was $73,000, while the figure for Kasich voters was $91,000. The population from which Trump voters were drawn was . . . Republican primary voters! So if Trump drew his support disproportionately from poor as opposed to rich Republicans, you would expect his voters’ median income to be lower than that of the median Republican primary voter—which is exactly what happened. Now, the effect is relatively small—Cruz voters were only slightly richer than Trump voters—so this is not strong evidence for the economic anxiety thesis. But nor is it good evidence against that thesis, especially because of the averaging problem, which I’ll come back to in a bit.”

    Having said that, yes a lot of Trump voters are racist. But that is NOT the only thing animating them.

  5. i really appreciate the cat and mouse action in this one. its one of those things which requires a workmanlike dedication to filmmaking i frequently see as lacking. i really hope to do my part in the industry to deliver work which is technically accomplished.

  6. Been looking forward to Vern tackling this one for years now, and was not disappointed. Well done. I do like that the “people under the stairs”, while not treated like monsters, are also definitely not treated as heroes. They’re cannibals, and if they think you’re a free meal it doesn’t matter to them who’s side you’re on. They didn’t choose to be what they are, but they’ve been down there long enough to be dangerous, even to people who don’t mean them any harm. To me, they’re probably a better analogy for the average Trump voter than Man or Woman are. Whether or not they’re really as persecuted as they think they are, they’re scared and angry enough that even when someone comes along who’s been fucked over by the same forces, they’re liable to lash out instead of listen. They feel ignored and desperate enough that they’re more than happy to turn on outsiders in lieu of eating the actual economic predators at the top of the food chain. And honestly, they’re probably not just Trump voters, they might equally well represent other groups and individuals, right or left, who gave up on trying to improve things and started eating their own.

  7. Crushinator – I’m just saying, Trump voters have been portrayed as an economic underclass who have every right to be angry because they’ve been screwed over. But the figures in the article are considerably more money than me and most of my friends make.

  8. By coincidence I rewatched this one for the fist time since the VHS days Sunday night. I remember this one being really hated when it came out and my brother and his friends and I were the only ones who kept insisting that it was good. Then everyone else eventually caught up to it about twenty years later.

    Rewatching it though, it’s funny how other than the language, some violence, and the (spoiler for a 20+ year old movie) accidental killing of the dog, it could almost pass as a kid’s film, thanks to it’s fairy tale-like tone.

  9. Crushinator Jones

    October 18th, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Vern, please read the link. As an aggregate they make more money then you because of demographics. Not because they’re all racist richies (although there are some of those).

    Hammering “Trump supporters are awful racist people” is garbage. It is garbage politics. It doesn’t help you beat them, it doesn’t help you be a better citizen, it doesn’t help democracy. If I said “all suicide bombers are evil shitty people” you would of course recoil if you knew anything about how suicide bombers were created, how they are exploited, etc. It’s the kind of one-note shit that Republicans say, honestly.

    Or, to put it another way, from @Chris_arnade: “Trump bringing voters down a very very dangerous path. And our response is to further isolate them? That is very dangerous. For everyone.”

  10. Crushinator- I fully agree with you. We see a similar tendancy over here in Sweden I am afraid.

  11. Crushinator Jones

    October 18th, 2016 at 8:36 am

    Just something to think about: the son of the guy who founded Stormfront now disavows that shit because a nice jewish guy reached out to him and invited him to dinner.

    The white flight of Derek Black

    A former heir to a racial nationalist movement reconsiders the ideology he once helped spread.

    Screaming “you’re a racist, you’re shit, hide your face in shame” didn’t help.

  12. AnimalRamirez1976

    October 18th, 2016 at 9:35 am

    This sounds like Craven’s version of Pink Flamingos.

  13. It’s true, lashing out at scared, defensive people only makes them dig their heels in deeper. I’ve tried to engage a few people, friends of friends on FB, with questions like, “What are you afraid will happen to you if Hillary becomes president?” or “What is one policy of Trump’s you would like to see enacted?” But I don’t know where to go from there because their response becomes some wild conspiracy theory about how Hillary wants to make it legal to abort newborn babies (seriously someone said this). Also they’re people I don’t know so maybe I need to start with people with whom I have an actual rapport.

    It’s like Mother Theresa said, “When you judge people you have no time to love them.” And Gandhi said to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Seagal asked, “What does it take to change the essence of a man?” but never really answered the question and he’s been posting blatant anti-Hillary stuff. :(

  14. Well, I appreciate what you’re saying Crushinator, but I am not the person to get through to them then. I’m not gonna pretend that I don’t think it’s racist to vote for a racist platform. I didn’t think I got too hard into my garbage politics here, but I’m genuinely sorry if it got your blood boiling. I thought it was relevant.

  15. Crushinator Jones

    October 18th, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    Oh no, my blood isn’t boiling at all. It’s no problem, you just linked something that didn’t tell the whole story IMO.

    Your politics aren’t garbage – they are just very centrist leftist. Just because I’m putting a label on them doesn’t mean I look down on them, btw. The only truly garbage politics are the Dark Enlightement neo-fuedalist liberterians. Fuck those guys.

  16. They’re giving this on TV right now and after this weekend it’s kinda stinging a bit. Those shitty people played by the awesome Twin Peaks residents never seemed more repulsive.

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