It may be something of an odd duck in Wes Craven's horror filmography, but The People Under the Stairs is probably his most fiercely political movie, as well as a grim, funny, slapstick fairy tale satire of wealth inequality, prejudice, and gentrification that feels, unfortunately, even more timely today than when it was released back in 1991.
Back then, Craven's parable of haves and have-nots performed well at the box office, but seemed to perplex everyone from critics to the film's own distributors, who marketed it as a straight-up horror film when it's really more of a stew of kids adventure, dark comedy, fairy tale imagery, and political satire. In the years since, it has become a cult classic, beloved by creators as influential as Jordan Peele.
The People Under the Stairs might be a parable about race relations and wealth inequality under late-stage capitalism right after the Reagan administration, but its themes are as vital today as they were then. As we see a new wave of "woke" horror hitting cinemas, The People Under the Stairs deserves to be revisited and newly appreciated, not just as one of the few horror movies that puts a Black character in the lead role, but as an urgent and prescient portrait of the issues that define life in modern America - and a freaky, funny, visually bizarre horror classic that too often gets left out in the cold.
'People' Inspired Jordan Peele's 'Get Out' And 'Us'
In 2017, Jordan Peele programmed a series of films for the Brooklyn Academy of Music that he called "The Art of the Social Thriller," which inspired his own forays into horror filmmaking. Alongside established genre classics like Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead, and The Shining, he programmed The People Under the Stairs.
It's easy to see an echo of the eponymous People in the feral, forgotten doppelgangers of Peele's Us. However, even in Get Out, he was tackling a lot of the same social themes that animated Craven's film, from class inequality and race-based divides to the more literal plot of seemingly well-to-do (white) people with a terrible and oppressive secret in their basement.
'The People Under the Stairs' Is Based On A Real Incident
According to Craven, he got the idea for the story after hearing a news item in the late 1970s. When a neighbor saw a pair of apparent crooks breaking into a home in the Los Angeles suburbs, they called the police. The investigation uncovered something much more sinister than the transgression. It turned out the parents in the seemingly ordinary home kept their maltreated and neglected children locked away.
"What appealed to me was the thought of a hidden truth that was radically different from the surface appearance," Craven said, "and the fact that this was taking place in a neighbourhood where, supposedly, people were enjoying the good middle-class life."
As you can see, Craven didn't really have to change the story much to make it into The People Under the Stairs - just turn what was already there up to 11.
Think Of It As The Anti-'Home Alone'
In Home Alone, which was released just a year before, the son of a wealthy white suburban family repels some goofy crooks at Christmastime using a variety of slapstick methods. In The People Under the Stairs, the crooks are the good guys, especially our main character, Fool, played by child actor Brandon Quintin Adams, who has to break into the house of the slumlords who are forcing his family out when he and his sick mother receive an eviction notice on his 13th birthday.
Unfortunately for them, they break into a house that is designed to keep people from ever getting back out. It seems that beneath the veneer of genteel respectability, the couple who own the house are dangerous psychopaths who keep a variety of maimed and cannibalistic children - the eponymous People Under the Stairs - in their basement, and slay anyone else who ventures inside.
Once Fool is trapped in the house, the slapstick antics of Home Alone are turned on their head, as he and other characters use dropped bricks, an electrified door, and even a slingshot to comically incapacitate his would-be captors and their Rottweiler.
It's A Modern-Day Fairy Tale Much Like 'Hansel and Gretel'
The People Under the Stairs is a fusion of a lot of different ideas and even different types of film, but tying it all together is a sort of fairy tale structure. The fairy tale imagery begins as early as the opening credits, when Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) explains Fool's tarot card reading over a close-up of the images of the cards themselves.
The film's villains, credited simply as Man and Woman, are an ogre and a witch, respectively, the latter reminiscent of Debbie Harry's child-eating suburban witch in Tales from the Darkside, which came out the year before. Their "good daughter" Alice, who in reality is another child they have taken, is the princess in the tall tower. And that's not even getting into the dragon's hoard of gold and cash stockpiled in the basement.
From the first time we see the twisted "family" before Fool ever breaks in, we are firmly in fairy tale territory. A crackling fire makes silhouettes of the Man and Woman - him with a mouth full of meat that he carves from the bone, and her seated at a sewing machine, making a dress for Alice. Once Fool is inside, the fairy tale structure becomes even more apparent, as he and Alice must follow proverbial breadcrumbs to try to escape the house.
According to Craven, the story was inspired partly by a dream he had "of a house that looks unassuming outside but inside reveals a seemingly endless string of secret chambers and passages."