Friday, July 3, 2020

New Flesh: The People Under The Stairs (1991)

The Film: The People Under The Stairs (1991)

What Is It About?: The People Under The Stairs revolves around young teenager Poindexter, or as his older sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) has dubbed him, "Fool" (Brandon Quintin Adams). Fool learns from neighbor Leroy (Ving Rhames) that he, Ruby and their mother (Connie Marie Brazelton) will be evicted from their home if they can not pay their landlords an enormous amount of money. Not only do they have to pay a large sum, but the family must do so by the end of the next day, which also happens to be Fool's thirteenth birthday. Fool reluctantly agrees to a scheme hatched by Leroy and Leroy's partner in crime Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) in which they will break into the landlords's home and steal a collection of gold coins they have allegedly amassed. However, once they enact their plot, Fool finds himself trapped inside of the house of the sadistic and insane landlords, known only as Mommy and Daddy (Wendy Robie & Everett McGill). Little does he know that, on his way to escaping, he will find out that Mommy and Daddy have several secrets that they are willing to kill to keep hidden under the stairs.

Why Do I Recommend it?

So, when figuring out how to start July, in which I'll be writing about the use of politics within horror films all month, The People Under The Stairs actually came to me pretty quickly as my choice for my New Flesh series for this month. Mostly because, despite the fact that this was written and directed by Wes Craven of Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street (among many others) fame, I had never actually heard of it until I saw Shudder's documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror last year. I quickly watched it after I viewed the documentary and found it to be a genuinely impressive and overlooked work within Craven's filmography. Especially as, to go off of the political theme for the month, there is a lot to unpack here.

The main political themes in The People Under The Stairs include its commentary against the gentrification of lower class neighborhoods, often populated by minority groups such as people of color (Such as Fool and his family), by the rich white elite. For those who don't know about gentrification, as I didn't for a long time, it is the act of taking property and rebuilding it to appeal to a higher class's taste. The People Under The Stairs makes its stances clear from the near start, presenting us with Fool and his family's predicament immediately after the opening sequence. To reiterate and expound, Fool's family is the last remaining family in their apartment building, they're strapped for cash and are late on a rental payment, something that is forcing them to now pay triple the usual fee. Fool is given no other option other than to go along with Leroy's robbery scheme, as Ruby and their mother are unable to get the necessary cash by the due date. The greed of Mommy and Daddy as they attempt to gentrify Fool's home forces him to participate in a series of crimes he is not comfortable with because, as Leroy says, "He [Daddy] wants to bring the wrecking ball in, so he can line his pockets." Even without the rest of the the movie that follows, the film's message is pretty explicit from the premise alone.

The People Under The Stairs's other main political theme is its anti-capitalism stance. While anti-capitalist, or "Eat the rich", films have experienced a surge lately, resulting in recent works such as Us, Ready or Not, Parasite and Knives Out, The People Under The Stairs was giving us that message years before the current crop was. The rich characters in this film, Mommy and Daddy, are, without question, irredeemably evil: They are gentrifiers, they are willing to murder to maintain their power and status, they've kidnapped multiple children and force those not up to their standards to live within the walls of their home. The rich are portrayed as absolute psychos, while the poor characters are portrayed very well: Fool is shown to be an intelligent, funny and considerate boy who just wants to save himself and his family from being thrown out and, eventually, wants to rescue the children Mommy and Daddy have kidnapped. Ruby is portrayed as intelligent and resourceful, especially at the climax of the film when she shows up to rescue Fool with their grandpa and an enormous group to back her up. Something that ties in with the anti-gentrification theme, as Ruby tells Mommy, "You're stealing the tools from our community for your own sick needs," which shuts her up right as she's about to insult Ruby and Ruby and Fool's grandpa Booker. (by calling them the n word, to boot.) I think that one of the biggest examples of what Craven is trying to drive home comes from two scenes: One is a very tender scene between Fool and his ailing mother right before he leaves to begin the scheme with Leroy and Spencer, that is immediately followed by Mommy confronting her "daughter" Alice, and immediately ordering Daddy to beat her "except the face." In that simple one-two punch, he shows the humanity of the poor black family and the monstrosity of the rich white "family".

Contrasting families in The People Under The Stairs (1991)

In addition to the political themes, the rest of the film really holds up as entertaining and good. I often talk about how much I love the casts of films, and The People Under The Stairs is no exception. Adams as Fool is great as a horror counterpart of sorts to Home Alone's Kevin McCallister, delivering reactions apropos to the insanity he encounters and giving us plenty of great one-liners along the way. My favorite being, "Your father's one sick mother, you know that? Actually, your mother's one sick mother too." Robie and McGill as Mommy and Daddy deliver exactly the necessary amount of over the top energy required for their batshit roles. It's very clear the two of them are having a blast as they're asked to do things lesser actors would balk at. This includes having Robie run around the house screaming with a shotgun and fawning over her "little doggy baby", while McGill has to wear a gimp suit in several scenes, as well as act out eating part of a dead body before tossing it to the imprisoned children under the stairs. The supporting cast is fine too, especially Rhames, Minter and Sean Whalen as the leader of the imprisoned children, known only as Roach. Really, there isn't a face out of place here, and the film is all the better for having such a strong ensemble.

The leads of The People Under The Stairs

A final aspect of the film I think is worth noting, in case any of this talk about politics or the over the top energy of the plot and performances has left you cold, is that this has Craven's fingerprints all over it. Or, to use a term I had to learn about repeatedly throughout my experience in film school, Craven's "auteurism" is definitely on display. Several of his trademarks are seen throughout, including his fascination with booby traps, something carried over from The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street and dialed up to twenty here. One of Fool's challenges as he tries to escape the house is that Mommy and Daddy have laid several booby traps, including an electrified front door, padlocked windows and a basement staircase that can turn into a slide. There's other little Craven touches, such as the use of a television playing a film (this is also something he throws into A Nightmare on Elm Street and, most famously, Scream), having a tense set piece involve a character being forced onto the roof of a house (Something he repeats in three out of his four Scream films), and the use of the "Lay my soul to sleep" prayer (Something he's clearly fascinated with, since one of his final films is named My Soul To Take.) And, interestingly enough, the final Craven element is the use of injecting politics into his horror films, as The People Under The Stairs joins Elm Street and his Scream films as among his films that have a message of some kind embedded within. So, if you like Wes Craven's other work and want an enjoyably chaotic film with some commentary to boot, look for The People Under The Stairs.

Available on: iTunes and Amazon.

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