#22: The People Under the Stairs
This weekend, I want to celebrate Wes.
That's who Daddy's hunting.
If you were a child of the 80s or 90s, Wes Craven's horror stories were your horror stories. From A Nightmare on Elm Street on, this was the man making the movies you weren't supposed to watch. The back of the VHS you shouldn't be looking at, just to get a peek at what lurked on the tape. He was the people's horror director - making relatable stories about regular people, be they teenagers, children, or your next door neighbor. The People Under the Stairs is the ultimate representation of that ideal.
Wes Craven was a professor. He had a master's in philosophy and writing. He was raised Baptist in the midwest. Instead of starting at the beginning of his filmography with Last House on the Left, or hitting with the ultimate monster/slasher hybrid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to start here in the middle. With a movie that is a clear-cut, message-driven film, with a real sense of morality, social values, and heart. And also sadomasochism, incest, decaying bodies, and yes, people under stairs.
This was a big hit at sleepovers when I was about ten. It had already been out for a number of years, but it had one of those covers that caught your eye walking the aisles at the video store, and somebody always seemed to have an older, irresponsible sibling willing to rent it for you (Candyman was an even bigger get - have you seen the cover for that?). It had a seedy, made-for-tv vibe, and the promise of a man dressed head to toe in a leather body suit, doing something awful.
Basically, it had a reputation. Like every Craven movie.
As an adult, you'll notice it's actually very funny. You'll also notice that it's a social issue film. A social issue film with ashen children who have no tongues rummaging through the walls. But still.
Everett McGill and Wendy Robie of Twin Peaks fame (they are famous to me) play "Mommy" and "Daddy,"
who in addition to being the world's worst parents, are also landlords to much of the neighborhood outside their padlocked doors (and windows). And as far as bad landlords go, these two are the worst. Bad, bad landlords.
They've warped the standard biblical moral values into something hellish and sexually deviant. If you wondered where American Horror Story got the idea for the Rubber Man, it was probably here. Though McGill looks even cooler with the additional spikes, rifle, and a gait that can only be described as "in control." Seriously, he just owns those hallways, hunting basement kids.
The film is self-explanatory. It isn't the complex nightmare-scape Craven invented for Freddy to haunt. Nor is it the baseless violence and assault he was experimenting with in Last House. What it is, is a commentary on community and stereotypical expectations. It's about divisions between the wealthy and the poor. And it's undeniably about race.
In light of recent events in this country, it'd be a good film to get everybody watching again. Because despite what Mommy and Daddy think behind closed doors, outside there is a neighborhood - and it's a community of people willing to stand up and fight for one another.
I'm a sucker for Daddy running around in that suit, but I'm going to go with Alice's admission to Fool about what he's actually doing. Roach, the boy in the walls - "that's who Daddy's hunting." My eyes bug out; it's just such a normal admission for her, as this obviously happens all the time. Damn kids.
Other Things to Notice:
- Ving Rhames!
- Wendy Robie's amazing red 40s-era hairdo.
- Weird family structure and cannibalism - two themes Wes touched on before in The Hills Have Eyes. And two themes that contemporary horror have latched onto so hard, it may never shake them off. But that's how far his influence has travelled.
- The ultra 90s rap-song-with-heart that closes out the film. If you think that was the only time that happened, remember this DJ Jazzy Jeff/Fresh Prince number.
- The Haunting in Connecticut has dead bodies falling out of the walls. The People Under The Stairs has live people clawing their way out. Fantastic.
If You Like It, Watch:
Candyman: I am a huge fan of this Bernard Rose film, released just a year after this one. It's also racially charged and tackles a number of social issues, including a bit of my favorite - that's right, feminism. It's also fucking terrifying and an incredible piece of art. If nothing else, enjoy the score by Philip Glass, and the stunning cinematography shot inside Cabrini-Green in Chicago. And Tony Todd. Bow down to Tony Todd. Watch the trailer
Shocker: If you're digging that low-budget made-for-tv vibe, or you just want a little comic relief, you'll get it here, along with the most 90s visual effects ever designed. I know there are real fans of this Craven movie, and perhaps you'll be one of them. For me, it's a highly entertaining time capsule watch. Watch the trailer
*click for the trailer*