I think that one of Wes Craven’s most underrated movies is 1991’s The People Under the Stairs. Not a lot of people have heard of it and those who have tend to dismiss it. They think it’s cheesy nineties fun, which it totally is, but it also has a deeper message.
The movie opens the night before Poindexter “Fool’s” (Brandon Adams) thirteenth birthday.
His sister, Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) is reading his tarot cards and the outlook is grim. She predicts spiritual tribulation, as if Fool’s life isn’t already hard enough. Their mother has cancer and they’ve just been evicted by their landlords because they missed a rent payment. Ruby’s boyfriend, Leroy (Ving Rhames) has a plan to get some quick money. Am I the only one who thinks of “Give me back my shoes, LEROY!” from The Bad Seed whenever I hear the name “Leroy?” Oh, I’m the only one. Anyway, their landlords are supposed to be super rich and Leroy plans to rob them with the help of his sleazy friend and fool. Things go badly when they discover that their landlords are a sadistic brother and sister living as a married couple. It took me awhile to realize but mommy and daddy are played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill. They’re the actors who played Nadine and Big Ed Hurley on Twin Peaks. This couple makes Ed and Nadine look a little vanilla. Also, their drape runners aren’t silent.
They brutally abuse their children who violate their rules of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” If they speak evil then their tongue gets cut out and they end up locked in the basement. The only one who’s managed to escape is Roach (Sean Whalen) and he lives between the walls.
The only child that remains (physically) unscathed is Alice (A.J. Langer, a.k.a. Rayanne Graff from My So-Called Life.) This movie is basically a time-capsule of actors from cult series of the nineties.
The house is a death trap with electrified door-knobs, a huge rottweiler, and Daddy (They call each other “Mommy” and “Daddy” like some creepy couples in real life do. Eeeeew) running around in a gimp suit with a rifle.
Most of the movie is Fool trying to escape the house with the few gold coins he found. It’s kind of like a reverse siege movie. Fool manages to escape but returns to rescue Alice. This time, Fool has backup. It turns out that Mommy and Daddy are slumlords and own most of the property in Fool’s neighborhood. Fool blows up the house and a shower of money rains down on the neighborhood.
My one real complaint about the movie is that it feels too long, clocking in at an hour-and-forty-three minutes, and some sequences that should have been tense begin to drag. That being said, I enjoy this movie and its critique of racism and capitalism. I actually think this critique may have kept the movie from being as successful as it should have been. From the time of Birth of a Nation, movies have featured menacing black men hurting white women, so I appreciate this movie for turning that formula upside down and having a black boy rescue a white girl. The movie was released about eight months after the Rodney King beating and five months before the Los Angeles riots that occurred after the officers that beat King were acquitted. I don’t know if the movie was created with the King beating in mind but I do know that it highlights the racial tensions of the era.
The movie also features a critique of capitalism that I think is still meaningful. It may be even more relevant in light of the recession and the housing bubble. Mommy and Daddy came from a family that made its money running a funeral home and selling cheap coffins for high prices. They then moved on to real estate. They’d buy property in the ghetto and if a tenant missed so much as one payment they’d charge them three times the usual rent. The tenants would inevitably be evicted and they’d build condos once the building was empty. Fool finds an actual pile of gold in their basement, as if Scrooge McDuck lived there. As if their avarice weren’t bad enough, there’s a certain banality to the Mommy and Daddy. Their house is crumbling and reflects their moral decay and insanity. Nothing in their house is nice and, for all that money, they’re not living well. Everything in the house is locked, not just to keep the children from escaping but because of their pervasive paranoia. These people aren’t living like Hannibal Lecter in Florence.
Mommy and Daddy are very religious and Wes Craven shines a light on the hypocritically pious. They frequently wish for people to burn in hell. I don’t know if they’d appreciate it if I pointed out that Dante assigned Judas to the ninth level of hell, where he’s chewed eternally by a three-headed Satan along with Brutus and Cassius, as punishment for their betrayal and, more specifically, Judas’ avarice.
If A Nightmare on Elm Street is Wes Craven’s movie about a fear of invasion of the sanctity of the home then this movie is like a mirror image of that theme. The danger in this movie resides within the home itself. This is apocryphical and I can’t find a source to back it up but Craven was allegedly inspired by reading a newspaper article about a couple that locked their child up and never let it out. Aside from its crazy inhabitants, the house is a maze of electrified door-knobs, hidden pits, trap doors, and bolted windows. The movie’s family is a perversion of what a family is supposed to be, while the poor family is shown to be loving and supportive.
I wouldn’t call this movie scary, it’s more tense. There isn’t a lot of gore except for a scene where Leroy is being butchered. That was actually pretty gross. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are just over-the-top in their performance and it’s so much fun to watch them. Fool’s a worthy adversary and he’s quick with a quip. I just wish the character of Alice had more agency because she was pretty helpless until the last twenty minutes of the movie.
So, this movie is fun but not really scary. I recommend it if you have a soft spot for cult t.v. shows of the nineties.