Now no longer a Moviepass member, podcasts predominantly dictate my film watching decisions. The Next Picture Show podcast, run by former Dissolve critics, upon the release of Get Out in March paired it with Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. While Stepford Wives is the more direct link, they chose the 1991 adventure horror for its racial themes which are very specific to its era. It’s still an odd choice because as much as I love Wes Craven, he is a hit or miss kind of guy. People Under the Stairs falls somewhere in the middle, not the masterpiece of Scream or the trashy mess of My Soul to Take. It’s unique that it’s not particularly scary and more satirical. At the same time being told from a child’s perspective as he tries to escape the maze of a boobytrapped mansion, it becomes a weird violent Home Alone alternative. Within this genre mishmash, there’s a lot to dig into even if it’s not all fully realized.
In the black slums of Los Angeles, a 13-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams), his sister and sickly mother are about to be evicted from their dilapidated apartment complex by their evil white landlords. Family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) enlists Fool’s help to rob those same landlords who are reportedly hoarding mounds of gold in their creepy house in the suburbs. The robbery goes sour fast and Fool finds himself trapped in a house that’s more concerned with breakouts than break-ins as there are cannibals in the basement, a mute in the walls and a porcelain doll of a daughter being tortured in her own bedroom. This is a film filled with so many strange details, it’s difficult to cover in a brief summary. What’s important to know is that the landlords referred to as Man and Woman in the credits are Reagan era allegories and they’re into some fucked up shit. Podcasters Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias found the metaphors quite blatant while for me as the credits rolled I turned to my boyfriend and said: “what were the people under the stairs supposed to stand for?” It’s a very clear generation gaps as Craven’s film is preying on the 80’s conservative, moral standards of the Republican-run government who preach purity but happily disenfranchise minorities. This shines clearest with the performances of Man and Woman played in extremely broad strokes by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie who are dolled up to be incestuous surrogates of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Their greediness and racism which is more overt than the white liberals in Get Out are very real for that time especially when the LA riots would happen only a year later.
Out of all the obstacles that Fool faces in the house, the titular people under the stairs are the least imposing which is what contributes to the flaws of this film. If I were to rank the threats it would go Mommy Dearest Nancy Reagan, simpleton Ronald Reagan in a gimp costume, the Cujo Rottweiler named Prince, abject poverty and lastly the Romero-esque zombies lurking in the basement dungeon. The Reagans are enough of a menace with the Woman’s bitchy white woman stares and the Man IN A FULL GIMP LEATHER DADDY GET UP running around with a shotgun hunting down a child. They are more effect villains due in part to how the film is shot. The initial breaking and entering is a daytime occurrence and a majority of the story takes place in an afternoon. This isn’t a dark and shadowy mise en scene, there’s a lot of light pouring through windows, a reminder that there is a world outside of this prison. Because of that choice, the powder-faced mutants in the basement look cheap and silly because we can see them too clearly. The Reagans look like normal people but behind closed doors are the ones to fear.
So we’ve got the political commentary, the parts that are intended to be scary but then this is also a poorly planned children’s film. I know not all films with a young protagonist have to be then geared towards children but even with murder and cannibalism, the tone has a playful energetic mentality that would appeal to a 13-year-old audience. It’s that Goonies spirit of treasure and adventure but misplaced here when there are more grounded stakes. Yet at one point when Fool and the mute Lost Boy, Roach (Sean Whalen), are being chased by Prince, Roach releases a trap door that shoots the dog down two floors and through the kitchen that might as well be accompanied by a slide whistle. Craven wants to have his cake and eat it too by making a Little Rascals and a Dawn of the Dead crossover but gets so muddled when you have this little kid saying the word “fuck”.
I know Wes Craven is a director capable of making horror movies with deep seeded messages. I consistently return to Last House on the Left, a brutal rape/revenge narrative but with clearly expressed commentary on 60’s counterculture and the Vietnam War. I respect his interest in branching out and wanting to talk directly about race but being a white man doesn’t make him the best candidate to do so. This kind of winking at the camera tone he would nail down a few years late with Scream. I wouldn’t say The People Under the Stairs is a failure (Ving Rhames in a movie is nothing to scoff at) yet the social awareness lacks a deep comprehension and the metaphors come off as half-baked in a 2017 perspective. Of course, the curiosity I end this review on is, is Vampire in Brooklyn any better?