A. J. Langer
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
The People Under the Stairs October 31, 2019
he People Under the Stairs, written and directed by Wes Craven, isn’t holistically that good of a movie, but it’s still a creative and interesting one. It’s the kind of film made by someone who has a lot on their mind without the cinematic language to translate their thoughts coherently but in bits and pieces can. The movie, released in 1991, is based on an article Craven read while skimming his local newspaper
in the 1970s. The piece told the story of a pair of burglars who’d broken into a Los Angeles home, looking for your conventional petty offerings, only to find that its tenants had locked their children up in the home’s innards under direly cruel conditions. Such a monstrosity is also in The People Under the Stairs, but it’s turned nightmarishly melodramatic — so much so that I wasn’t sure (and I don’t think Craven was so sure, either) what sort of reaction I was supposed to have.
The hero of the movie is a little boy who goes by the nickname Fool (Brandon Adams), and as the movie opens his family is in dire straights. The next day they’re going to be evicted by their landlords, the Robesons. The Robesons are antagonists of a sensationalized variety — the types one cannot imagine existing in everyday life, instead among the kinds you’d meet in pulp novels, smoking comically big cigars in puffy leather swivel chairs behind desks in shadowed penthouse offices. We learn, early in the movie, that the Robesons are Craven’s version of the domestic villains in that one newspaper article. Indeed, the patriarchs, who remain unnamed but call each other Mommy and Daddy (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), have locked a child up in their quarters as if she were a caged animal. Her name is Alice (A.J. Langer) and she’s been made up to look like she was a doll, only she’s not treated like Polly Pocket. More so, a lot of the time, she’s designated a songbird who’s often mistaken for a fly on the wall who won’t succumb to swats. Slowly, Craven reveals to us that there are in reality lots of people who’ve been imprisoned by the Robesons — not just under the stairs but in the walls, hidden rooms. We’ll learn what’s happened to them, and why the Robesons are doing what they’re doing, later.
Fool is our conduit into the hell house. During the first act, he and a couple of others from his neighborhood (Ving Rhames and Jeremy Roberts) break into the Robesons’ humble abode to steal some valuable gold coins they’re rumored to have. They’ll certainly get Fool and his family out of their residential predicament. But when the Robersons figure out what’s going on, so begins, predictably, something of a chase movie masqueraded as an inside-out home-invasion thriller, where Fool is forced to make his way through the domestic labyrinth under the impression that he’s not only going to get the fabled coins but also help liberate Alice and her fellow captives.
The use of a child as the protagonist, paired with the caricatured aplomb of Mommy and Daddy (they’re Ricky and Lucy from Hell, made scarier by Daddy’s propensity to wear a gimp suit (really) when especially angry) makes the movie at times feel like a children’s horror movie à la Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) or Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). The humor sometimes has a demented whimsy to it, upping the sensation. So sometimes the pivots into gore can feel knee-jerkish. So blurry are Craven’s tonal intentions that after a while I gave up and treated the movie like a horrible 3D ride at an alien-run carnival — rollicking to experience but also a bit hard to decipher. The only sensical thing about the feature is also thankfully what makes it a standout and not a mere exercise, and worth watching after all. This is all an allegory for avarice and capitalism, cemented by a moment when Fool falls into a hidden room and discovers piles and piles of cash in it, untouched. Once you’re in the thrall of a capitalist system, how easily can you escape from it? The system and those who have power over it are the Robesons; the title stair-people, and really anyone who dares go into the house, become the ones trapped doing the money dance. By the movie’s end did I feel like I’d just consumed a double-meaning-drenched Kafka story, which isn’t so shabby a feeling.
The movie seems like sort of a mess — albeit an enjoyable mess — until Craven’s parabolic ideas have crystallized come act three. Then the movie suddenly seems as if it’s been exhibiting minor genius right under our noses this whole time. One wishes The People Under the Stairs were scarier so that its subliminal messages really drove home. Rogie and McGill, entertaining as they are here, are like failed auditioners for Mommie Dearest (1978). But I admired the movie, which at first seems like a botched home-invasion thriller job, for the way it seemed discontented with remaining a mere home-invasion thriller. What if it did something more? No matter if The People Under the Stairs worked or not — and I think, in the long run, it mostly does — at least Twin Peaks (1990-1991) fans get the pleasure of getting to know Big Ed and Nadine in an alternate timeline. B