It was 1991, I was 11 years old and anxious, even sitting next to my father. Thanks to the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, I was familiar with Wes Craven’s work to a certain extent, and that familiarity was precisely what had me on edge. In a matter of moments Craven’s new film, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, would come to life on a screen that seemed to stretch to the stars, and I knew that I was on the cusp of seeing (much to my mother’s chagrin) something special.
Then the film rolled… and my mind was completely blown.
Even at 11, I was able to identity the societal statements that permeate the picture: The rich get richer, the poor starve, and racism was — and still is — very alive. It was a note from Craven to the viewers, and it was almost impossible to miss. Given Craven’s position as a leading genre talent, fans filled screening rooms, and that message was delivered in sporadic and vile bursts of cruelty and disregard for human life. When you witness the depravity of the film’s antagonists, you find that feeling is accompanied by filth. The movie leaves you feeling as though you might keel over dead if you can’t wash that lewdness from your mind.
Apparently that repulsiveness called to a lot of people, because a whole hell of a lot of fanatics witnessed that oddly human exercise in unadulterated savagery: THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS opened in the top box office slot with an initial weekend (domestic) haul of $5.5 million. It spent six weeks within the top 10 bracket of the box office, eventually claiming a total $24 million in domestic sales, and successfully siphoned an additional $7 million on the foreign market, proving to be one of Craven’s true commercial successes.
The film’s triumph was rightfully earned, as THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS boasts a lot more than a punch in the face of the greedy or the bigots — it’s an extremely taut piece of work that still, 25 years after its release, proves chilling and engaging in equal measure.
The film’s unlikely heroic lead is a child, nicknamed “Fool” and no older than 13 years old, who finds himself trapped in a house of horrors. The owners of this eerie abode just so happen to be the landlords of the slum that Fool calls home, and with the assistance of Leroy (a young Ving Rhames) and Spencer, Fool makes entrance with the goal of burglarizing the hateful couple — who, as rumor would tell it, are sitting on a mountain of cash.
What Fool, Leroy and Spencer don’t anticipate is the ruthlessness of the home’s inhabitants, or the repulsive collection of mutilated — but still very much alive — men and women trapped in the basement. These captives, who had dropped from the radar over the years, eventually play an integral role in not just successfully robbing these wretched human beings, but bringing an official end to the couples’ loathsome existence.
Those script details are what help to separate THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS from the majority of the pack. Fool is an antihero; he entered that freakshow of a house with one single goal — to steal. Now his motives differ from some of the other onscreen antiheroes we’ve come to know over the years, but that does very little to sway the reality of his intentions. The fact that Fool is able to turn the tides on a sadistic duo really serves to remind viewers that horror rules are designed to be broken — and when they are, we often see inventive pictures as a result.
Wes Craven did an excellent job of twisting a standard narrative into something far darker. The film runs a taboo gamut (did I mention that this couple are also brother and sister? Yeah, this house was built upon the unthinkable) all while serving as a podium for a Craven speech that, while in your face, never feels overtly preachy.
While THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is unlikely to build the kind of fan base that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or SCREAM can lay claim to, it’s still an entertaining and creepy film. Sadly, a number of the issues that Craven tackles in the film are still serious problems in modern society. THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS featured noticeably improved maneuvers from Craven, and it’s too bad we as a people have a hard time improving ourselves.