Remember the time that Wes Craven decided to make the most absurdist, Lynchian, unhinged, over-the-top, satirical, this-is-your-acid-on-acid social commentary in the guise of horror movie? No? Clearly, then, you have not seen his 1991 classic magnum opus to all things WTF, The People Under the Stairs.
Oh, yes. I have been waiting to reach this film in Craven’s oeuvre. And while a couple of films that I held in fond remembrance didn’t really survive the light of reality that my re-watching shone upon them (sorry, Kristy, Bill, and Mitch, but your movies did not hold up well at all), revisiting the Robesons and their freakish clan beneath the stairs did not disappoint.
For those needing a refresher: We start by meeting our protagonist, Poindexter “Fool” Williams, who lives in the L.A. projects with his mom and sister and his sister’s kids. His mother has cancer but barely enough money to pay their rent…which doesn’t matter at this point anyway, because the landlord of Fool’s building has evicted them. Fool’s sister’s boyfriend decides to draft Fool on a…fool’s errand to rob the landlord of a rumored coin collection as a means of helping Fool and taking back some of what the landlord has been taking from the tenants he is summarily evicting from all his properties.
Once Fool is inside that house, though. Oh, that’s when Craven just lets it all go. The shit? It gets supremely real.
I feel as though this film was Craven finally returning to and accepting the fact that, for better or for worse, he was a master of the horror genre…while also introducing into his regimen even more of his sublime gallows humor as well as some incredible allegorical outlook on the state of affairs. Craven, who had made a career of examining the most uncomfortable truths about humanity, clearly decided to do this once more. However, the horror scene had shifted its dynamic away from the intense and inescapable realism of those late 70s films that Craven and his counterparts had made. As I wrote in my review of Shocker, shock had given way to schlock by this point. Making a film akin to Craven’s early offerings would have been a death knell to a story that Craven obviously felt was important enough to get out there. So, rather than fire his missive directly at viewers, Craven took it over the top.
WAY over the top.
He also had a great deal to say about the state of affairs at that moment in our history. We were coming out of the era of divided decadence known as the 80s, where the Haves ruled the realm while the Have Nots slipped further and further into the class chasm that Reaganomics helped excavate. We’d just gone through the Persian Gulf War at the beginning of the year this movie released. In fact, if you check out the televisions running throughout the house that Fool breaks into, you’ll notice they’re showing footage from that war. Oh, and did I mention that the house belonged to two supremely demented and disturbingly inbred people who are hoarding loads of money and harboring even more secrets within the confines of their home? But we’ll get further into that in a moment.
Oh, and clearly Craven found the public’s televised participation in warfare horrific in its own right. This was the second movie in a row into which he integrated televised images of war and destruction. Whereas this film made it part of the background motif, Shocker brought it well and truly to the forefront, with Craven having his protagonist and antagonist fight each other while running through some of the more infamous images broadcast from war zones. I’ve talked about this before in various places, but the televised impact of the brutality of war helped to shift the focus of horror in many ways. While for some horror makers, the actual participation in war was what shaped their ideas, others like Craven only witnessed what was shown to them via news reports from the front lines. And that was more than enough.
Now, back to our review, already in progress.
Yes, there are elements of class warfare and racial warfare. The Robesons are White while the majority of their tenants are…not. The Robesons are extremely wealthy. The kind of wealthy that exists for those privileged enough to be born into the (debatably) right family. They inherited wealth and property and the ability to abuse those with less than them because of this privilege. They also inherited some supremely deteriorated genes thanks to the family clearly not allowing outside guests into their gene pool.
Yeah, the Robesons, who refer to each other as “Mommy” and “Daddy” are actually siblings. And apparently years (decades?) of inbreeding have left them unable to have their own kids (evidence that there might actually be a deity out there, balancing out the universe), so they steal children and try to mold them into suitable heirs. Unfortunately, that obstinate vein of free will that humans possess and cherish so deeply leads to inevitable failure with nearly all the kidnapped kids. So what do the Robesons do? First, they eradicate the “problem” areas (Have a habit of talking back? We’ll just lop off that pesky tongue!). Next, they lock the children up.
Under. The. Stairs.
This ain’t no Harry Potter fairy tale, kiddies. And this ain’t no drill. There are literally people under the stairs. Placed there by this dynamic duo of debauchery:
Genre fans will instantly recognize these two as Ed and Nadine Hurley, those crazy kids-in-love from Twin Peaks. Well, maybe not instantly…unless Nadine were wearing her eye patch and working on her completely silent drape-runners.
[Loba Tangent: Damn, I need to re-watch that show.]
Craven specifically sought out actors Everett McGill and Wendy Robie to play Daddy and Mommy. He could not have been more on-point, as both McGill and Robie brought with them the quirky chemistry they had developed together during their tenure in Twin Peaks as well as a frenetic, unstable energy and an ability to devour the scenery around them in massive, heaving gulps. Simply put, it’s primarily because of McGill and Robie that Craven’s story played with the level of success that it did. Not to say, of course, that the rest of the cast didn’t bring their A games as well. Brandon Adams was wonderfully cast as Fool, it was great getting to see an early era Ving Rhames, A.J. Langer brought a certain degree if discomfiting fragility to her role as Alice, Sean Whalen amused as Roach (although I wonder how this would have played out had Hilary Swank won the role instead), and it was fun to see Craven pilfer from an NOES sequel for Kelly Jo Minter.
Still, McGill and Robie. Those two relinquished all pretense for their roles in this movie and the end result was magic. In fact, I would rank The People Under the Stairs as one of Craven’s best offerings to the horror altar, thanks in large part to their delivery of his story to audiences. Solid insanity, every step of the way. May they burn in hell. Forever and ever in hell.
And while their performances are almost beyond absurdist, there always is a level of fear and danger to their characters’ actions that keep them rooted to the truth that these two are the villains of the day for more than just horror-related reasons. They are what is wrong, not just with the deteriorating neighborhoods surrounding their gated, secured home, but with everywhere and everything. Craven’s commentary? IMHO, it’s that the greed and deranged decadence of the preceding decade had deepened the class and race divides to an unbelievable level. No, the wealthy were not eating their victims or getting away with debaucheries that would make Buffalo Bill blush, but they were getting away with a certain degree of disconnectedness to what the rest of the nation was enduring. Craven’s Mommy and Daddy epitomized the dearth of sympathy that swelled within the hearts of those who had no idea what it was like outside their enclave of entitlement.
Sadly, this all still sounds disturbingly familiar…perhaps even more so now.
Mommy and Daddy might have been satirically unhinged, but not by much. Neither possessed compassion for those with lesser means. They instead viewed them as threats to be contained or eliminated. Out of sight, out of mind. They hoarded their wealth and cared only about acquiring more…simply for the purpose of having it. Not spending it. Not sharing it. Just keeping it locked away. They behaved with utter assumed impunity, which local police reinforced simply by reason that these were well-established, upstanding (read: wealthy and White) members of the community; and don’t forget that Daddy oozed a sexual predatory nature that left no doubt that young Alice was most assuredly not safe in Wonderland.
With this film, Craven was castigating the upper classes for their lack of compassion while reminding the rest of us that things would only change if we became more aware, stopped turning a blind eye to one group or judging another because of appearances and assumptions. Neither is a true bellwether. Craven’s talent in getting this message across with these characters was in being able to make us laugh at their behaviors up front, but to cringe as the reality of their existence and actions settled into our brains. These were deplorable monsters, made that much worse by their attempts to hide their insatiable deviance from an outside world that, honestly, wasn’t really trying all that hard to spot it because of their assumed upstanding positions in the community.
Conversely, young Fool proved his merit by returning to the house he barely escaped, to save Alice and the other children hidden within, thus tipping all assumptions right on their ass. And that moment when Mommy gets ready to launch a racially explicit invective against Fool’s family, who have come to find him and help him, and is instead forced to face the residents she and Daddy were summarily sticking it to on a regular basis? That’s such the perfect encapsulation of Craven’s wish to force a similar face-to-face between the wealthy and those they have disenfranchised. And her subsequent “eat the rich” moment would have made Steven Tyler so very proud.
It had been a slow slope downward in Craven’s oeuvre since A Nightmare on Elm Street, with Craven wanting to explore other cinematic genres and fighting unsuccessfully against a tide of consensus from critics, production companies, and fans alike to keep him locked into horror. However, I truly believe that this film was a successful return for him to that insightful prowess into the human condition that put him down the horror path in the first place. I’ve also realized that I don’t yet own this film. Thank you, Cravenous, for bringing this to my attention so that I can rectify it post-haste.