Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The People Under the Stairs

I consider Wes Craven to be one of the most important directors in the horror genre, but looking at some of the reviews I've given to his films on this blog, you might not have always gotten that impression. Of his movies I've reviewed, I'm overwhelmingly positive to one (The Serpent and the Rainbow), almost completely negative to another (Chiller), and mixed toward the rest (though the more I think about it, the higher I'd probably rate Deadly Blessing).

Thankfully, The People Under Stairs (1991), which Craven also wrote, gives me the chance to once again to bestow praise on him. Like The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs depicts a brutal struggle between the haves and the have-nots, but unlike the former, Craven locates the setting of the latter to a dilapidated inner-city ghetto and establishes sympathy with the have-nots. In addition, Craven once again explores multiple levels of reality, the cheery, artificial surface that buries the shocking, ugly truth, and how that repression creates monsters. Unlike A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs he depicts not a fantastical dream world but an all-too real social caste system.

On his thirteenth birthday, Fool (Brandon Adams) learns not only does his mother have cancer but his family is about to be evicted. His sister's friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) convinces him to join a plan to rob their landlords' house, where Leroy has learned a stash of gold coins is hidden. But getting out of the house is not as easy as getting in, and soon, Fool becomes trapped inside. Worse, the landlords, known only as Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie), are a couple of deranged weirdoes who have some sick secrets, including a pack of albino cannibals living in the basement. And that's the just tip of the iceberg of how twisted and evil the Man and Woman are.

The phrase "The People Under the Stairs" warrants closer examination. Stairs, by definition, are the steps by which someone climbs one floor of a building to another; to be under stairs is to be unable to move up or down. In the film, not only does this refer to the cannibals locked in the basement but also Fool and his family. The cannibals physically can't move up because of their environment just as Fool and his family can't climb out of poverty. Thus, with its title, The People Under the Stairs reveals itself as a dark yet socially-aware fable about how the rich upper class exploits and literally feeds on the poor lower class it entraps.

The landlords, who refer to each other as Mommy and Daddy, are portrayed, metaphorically, as a witch and an ogre. They are brother and sister, and they come from a long line of greedy, crazy people who have enriched themselves at the expense of the surrounding neighborhood, charging obscene rents while letting the apartments fall into decay and evicting the families so they can demolish the homes and build condos. They own the local liquor store, feeding the addictions of the community. They have fortified their house and locked their "children" away from what they see as the sin of the outside world, assuring themselves regularly that all those outsiders will "burn in Hell."

Yet, the real horror lies inside their walls, not beyond them. Those cannibals in the basements were the boys the landlords kidnapped, but when they saw too much, heard too much, or spoke too much, "Daddy cut out the bad parts," says Alice (A.J. Langer), the daughter who has learned complete obedience and submission, though that doesn't stop her "parents" from beating and abusing her. These rich folks (who keep a picture of Ronald Reagan on the wall across from a crucifix) are greedy, parasitic, incestuous, and hypocritical.

In contrast, the poor, as represented by Fool and his family, are loving and supportive. Early scenes contrast the cold cruelty of the landlords toward Alice with Fool, right at that age between boyhood and manhood, wanting to do the right thing to help his family, even if it means stealing. Fool's ultimate ambition is to be a doctor, a profession committed to helping others. The Man is first seen wolfing down meat in front of a massive fireplace while picking buckshot out of his food while the Woman demands unconditional obedience from Alice; Fool, in his first appearance (after a tarot card reading), learns of the impending eviction and his mother's cancer and demands to know how to help.

Craven also gets help from a good cast. I'm always a bit hesitant that a horror movie starring a kid will be watered down, but Adams is quite good, carrying the entire film as a determined boy who wants to prove himself and help his family. Rhames makes a relatively early exit, but he's fun while he's there and is surprisingly a complex character. Of course, McGill and Robie (who played another weird couple of Twin Peaks) make for some nasty, despicable villains; they push toward campy territory (Robie in particular makes me think of Mommie Dearest), but it works; after all, they are characters who live in their own little reality.

Just as twisted as the landlords is their house, a former funeral home. Here, Craven creates an unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere where doors are remotely locked, the walls contain hidden chambers and passage ways, and booby traps can be anywhere. In a nice touch, the landlords keep their wealth in the former embalming room, instead of circulating it back into the neighborhood. Though located in a modern inner city, the house feels like a dark, gothic cross between a mansion, suburban home, and a castle with twists and surprises around every corner.

Already, I've compared the villains to a witch and ogre and their home to a castle. In a way, that is what Craven has crafted: a modern, urban fairy tale. A young boy learns  to be a man as he ventures into a lair of monsters to get the hidden treasure and save a maiden in distress (of course, she's named Alice). The difference, however, is these monsters - child abusers, religious hypocrites, and economic exploiters - are very real.

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