Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1991)

13. The People Under the Stairs

By 1991, Wes Craven was well on his way to becoming a brand name. In a few years, he would be slapping his name on unrelated, kind of crappy low-budget flicks. Even though “Shocker” underperformed, the director still had a solid reputation. Perhaps this combination of prestige and desire to prove himself is why “The People Under the Stairs,” a real gem, emerged when it did.

The film sets up its premise very quickly. The protagonist, nicknamed Fool and directly compared during the opening credits to the Tarot archetype of the same name, lives in the L.A. ghetto with his sick mother and pregnant sister. On the day his family is evicted from their crack house apartment, an equally archetypal treasure hunt presents itself. The landlords who own the slums supposedly have a cache of rare, valuable gold coins hidden somewhere in their sprawling home. Once he breaks in, Fool discovers neither the home nor the landlords are what they appear to be, discovering a twisted, frightening world inside.

While Wes’ films frequently feature social commentary of some sort, “The People Under the Stairs” shows the director moving into overt political commentary. The villains of the film are slumlords, draining the local populace of all their resources, growing richer and fatter while their tenants starve to death. Mommy and Daddy are introduced eating the flesh of an animal. As the story progresses, we discover them to be cannibals, the rich literally eating the poor. While there are no supernatural elements in the film, the villains might as well be vampires, sucking the life blood from the less fortunate around them.

The movie blatantly invites comparison to real life politics. Mommy at one point says, on the steps of her huge home, “It’s as if we are the prisoner and the criminals roam free,” the kind of Republic rhetoric still in use today. The villains don’t just exploit the poor, they also imprison them in the house’s basement. Righteous retribution comes at the end, with the put-upon clawing out from the walls and floorboards, attacking the rich. The final image of the film is the villain’s home exploding, raining money over the ghetto, a moment of pure wish fulfillment. On top of this, Daddy bears a frequently commented on resemblance to Ronald Reagan and TV coverage of Desert Storm shows up at one point.

Beyond the social commentary in the film, “The People Under the Stairs” shows the director’s continued interest in the concept of family. Mommy, Daddy, and their abducted children play like the Nuclear Family from Hell. Mommy cooks the food, even if that means chopping up intruders. Meanwhile, Daddy defends the home, blasting people away with a shotgun. The daughter lives in terror, constantly abused for not living up to her psychotic parents’ standards. Like in “Deadly Friend,” the movie deals frankly with the kind of child abuse that frequently hides under clean, suburban homes. At one point, when cops investigate their house, Mommy and Daddy slip on a mask of civility and normality easily, hiding their twisted true nature.

Mommy and Daddy are another one of Wes’ memorable creations. The two live in their own world. The way they act, somewhere between 1950s idealism, twisted backwoods abuse, simultaneous asexual and sexually deviant, is unnerving. The two appear to be genuinely deranged individuals. Wendy Robie as Mommy is frankly terrifying, screaming and brandishing a huge butcher knife. Has there ever been a more convincing “crazy bitch” performance on screen? Poor Alice, the adopted daughter, is held down, screamed at, and forced to slide around in blood, all deeply upsetting moments.

As Daddy, Everett McGill similarly goes over-the-top, his big, glowering face being used well. One of the film’s most memorable images is the towering McGill running around in a full-body S&M leather gimp suit. As the man of the household, Daddy is the sexually aggressive one. Scenes of him holding Alice down, sniffing a boy’s shorts, or feeling himself up are oddly funny but hint at disturbing, off-screen events. McGill and Robie also played a couple on “Twin Peaks,” which makes sense. Craven and David Lynch both subvert the traditional family unit to surreal, disturbing effect. Oh, and did I mention the characters are brother and sister too?

There are other Craven trademarks present here. “The People Under the Stairs” shows the improvised booby trap making a strong comeback. The villains’ home, where most of the action is set, is perhaps the biggest Wes Craven Booby Trap ever devised. We see doors on trip-wires pulling themselves shut, stairs that turn into slides, electrified door knobs, giant spikes on a trigger, and coins stuck into a melting candle. “Scream” wasn’t the first time the director subverted horror clich├ęs as here, when faced with a spooky basement, a character says “I ain’t stupid!” and turns to leave. And maybe it’s just because I like “Deadly Friend” so much but another young girl looking longingly, silently out a window seems to recall that film.

“Shocker” and “Deadly Friend” both struggled with tonal inconsistence. “The People Under the Stairs” also jumps back and forth between intense horror and wacky comedy. A vicious Rottweiler figures in to many of the film’s scenes. While an early attack generates some tension, the dog is a bit too cute to be truly fearsome. The dog careening down a slide is too silly. Silly moments, like exaggerated dog punches, dick punches, or kids hitting adults with slingshots makes this seem like a “kids on an adventure” flick, like “The Goonies” or “The Monster Squad.” It’s not, really. Silly moments like that should contrast badly with moments of explicit horror. A little girl getting dumped into a boiling tub is probably the film’s most disturbing moment. Once the butchery starts, the film doesn’t pull back on the gore, showing a corpse chopped up in graphic detail. However, unlike the tonal shifts in the director’s previous films, these actually work in the film’s favor. “The People Under the Stairs” plays like a modern fairy tale, showing young kids stumbling into a dark netherworld, hunted by human monsters.

Horror fans should be satisfied. Atmosphere is frequently built with little. Slow, quiet pans around the living room or a creepy basement are good examples. Moments like this build tension. Tight corridors behind walls and into air vents make for claustrophobic thrills. This is the director’s first movie in a while not to feature a nightmare sequence but even then, some scenes have a strange, nightmarish tone to them. Flashlights shining through the wall or a hand pulling someone through an open door feel that way. The movie’s scariest moment involves Fool being attacked by the dog on one side of the wall while Daddy stabs through the wall with a bayonet on the other side. It builds well and ends well.

Wes Craven’s visual direction continues to evolve. The camera frequently slides around the house in evocative, interesting ways. A bayonet sliding out of the wall, in extreme close-up, blood dripping off it, is a great image. A shot of a long hallway, a pair of legs sticking out around the corner, is another interesting image. A pile of dead flies is an inventive, neat moment. The film shows the director in a very creative mood.

Brandon Adams is great as Fool. The character is very likable, crafty and inventive. You root for him to survive and succeed. As you’d expect, the character transitions from Fool to Hero before the film’s end, marching back into danger to save the damsel in distress. It feels natural, not forced. A.J. Langer as Alice does well too. When she finally rebels against her “parents,” it’s a deeply cathartic moment. Adams has some hilarious facial expressions too. Ving Rhames, still early in his career, plays a very typical Ving Rhames part. He’s hilarious, throwing out absurd, ribald dialogue throughout. Sean Whalen and Bill Cobbs have notable supporting roles as well.

This is another movie Wes has talked up remaking. On one hand, I don’t see the point. “The People Under the Stairs” is a hidden gem, a surprisingly likable picture. Aside from some cheesy early nineties fashion, the movie has aged astonishingly well. But then again, a remake might be worthwhile. The social commentary behind the film is just as viable and relevant now as it was then. The film is rightfully considered a minor classic among horror fans and one of the highlights in Wes’ post-“Elm Street,” pre-“Scream” era. [Grade: B+]

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