By 1991, director Wes Craven had lived several lives. Over the course of 20 years, the college professor-turned-horror-auteur evolved from the grindhouse provocateur to the 80s slasher hitmaker behind the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Still several years from leading the meta-horror renaissance with Scream, Wes Craven released a movie that defies easy categorization. Parts dark urban fairy tale and gentrification satire, The People Under the Stairs remains one of the oddest movies in a career marked by left turns and surprises and perhaps one of his scariest.
Faced with his mother’s mounting medical bills and eviction from his family’s apartment, 13 year old Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams) is coerced by resident burglar Leroy (Ving Rhames) into helping him steal the gold rumored to be hidden in the home of his reclusive landlords. But if breaking into the home of “Mommy and Daddy” Robeson (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie of Twin Peaks fame) proves to be a challenge, getting back out again will be deadly. Hunted by the sadistic Mommy and Daddy and their monstrous, man-eating dog, Fool must rely on his wits to escape the Robesons’ trap-filled home with his life. Along the way, Fool is aided by the Robeson’s daughter Alice (AJ Langer), Roach (Sean Whalen), a tongueless boy living in the walls of the house, and the mysterious people under the stairs, locked away in the basement of the home.
As the film opens, Fool’s sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Mintner) reads his fortune with tarot cards. The card drawn, is The Fool –the source of our hero’s name– Embarking on the treacherous path that will make him a man. From this moody, candlelit scene, the stage is set: though set in the smog of early 90s LA, The People Under the Stairs maintains the feeling of a mythic journey. As Fool crosses the threshold of the home, he enters into a space equal parts minotaur’s labyrinth and Baba Yaga’s walking house. The dusty halls of the Robeson home close in around Fool, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. Secret passages await around each corner leading both to deadly trap and an escape from the family hunting him at every turn. The house, like the Robeson clan, is twisted and sinister, but passably normal should authorities decide to poke their noses into the family’s business.Rooms pile high with dusty antiques and religious iconography, and Craven and cinematographer Sandi Sissel film each room in a way so that the viewer stays disoriented and unable to grasp the house’s geography. The effect is such that feels like that one in your neighborhood, the one that looks normal enough but which you walk a little faster by anyway. With The People Under the Stairs, Craven borrows more than just cast members from David Lynch; like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, People explores the terror that lurks behind white picket fences and an All-American facade, weaving real heightened nightmare imagery with horrors that are all too real.
Mommy and Daddy Robeson rank among some of Wes Craven’s best and most terrifying villains. McGill and Robie play the pair as broad, towering avatars of the wealthy religious right, callously pushing people out of neighborhoods to build pricey condos and murdering anyone foolish enough to enter their home. There is an element of cartoonishness to their maximalist performances –McGill withstands a superhuman level of punishment throughout the film– but the difference between the Robeson’s and, say, Craven’s famously quippy Freddy Krueger is that the Robeson’s monstrosity is presented mirthlessly. Whereas Craven invites the viewer to laugh along with Freddy’s dreamtime murders, he wants the viewer to revile the Robesons. Their heightened horror movie villainy of murder, kidnapping children, and light cannibalism is cut with very real cruelty that prevents audiences from identifying too closely. The movie’s most harrowing scenes are the acts of abuse the couple heap upon Alice. Mommy’s meltdown and punishment of Alice dirtying her dress is one of the most visceral and hardest to watch scenes in the movie. Viewers uncomfortable with depictions of verbal and physical abuse and the insinuation of sexual abuse should proceed through the film with caution.
With villains as outsized as McGill and Robie, it would be easy for the protagonists to get lost in the mix, but thankfully all shine through. Brandon Adams, perhaps best known for The Sand Lot and The Mighty Ducks plays the role is the hero of a 90s kids movie that’s wound up in the worst possible circumstances. If that reads as a dismissal, I assure you it’s not. Only 11 during production, Adams more than holds his own against the larger-than-life performances of McGill, Everett, and Ving Rhames. Sean Whalen plays Roach, Fool and Alice’s tongueless protector like a nonverbal Peter Pan, foiling the plans of the family with comic glee. For what’s ultimately not much screentime, he makes a lasting impression. AJ Langer is excellent in the most difficult role in the film. As Alice, Langer is skittish, spending the early film existing in the margins around her abusive family and in wide-eyed terror as they approach. Her arc is not in finding the strength to stand up to her parents, but in manifesting the strength she’s demonstrated throughout the film in aiding Fool and Roach into confronting them directly. Fool’s journey may be at center stage, but Alice’s journey is the most satisfying to watch.
In some ways, it’s easy to see why The People Under the Stairs is not celebrated as a Halloween staple the way other Wes Craven movies are. As thrilling as People is, it isn’t “fun” in the same way Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream are and doesn’t fit as neatly into any one subgenre the way those do. Often mis-labeled as a horror-comedy, it’s more accurate to call The People Under the Stairs grim satire. Craven injects some of his old grindhouse edge into a funhouse mirror image of the conservative cultural forces that have only gotten more powerful and dangerous in the years since the film’s release. A common theme across Craven’s best remembered works is the average suburbanites capacity for senseless violence, be they the parents of Springwood bringing Freddy to mob justice in Nightmare or the bored teenage slashers of Scream. But never before has Craven’s vision of the horrors behind your neighbor’s door been as tense, surreal, or rewatchable as they are in The People Under the Stairs.