Directed By: Wes Craven
Starring: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie
Tag line: "In every neighborhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid"
Trivia: Scenes from this movie are shown on the Twister Ride at Universal Studios, Orlando
After the recent passing of Wes Craven, I realized that, when it came to the late writer/director’s “other” films (i.e. - those that aren’t connected in any way, shape, or form to Scream or A Nightmare on Elm Street), there was a fair number of them that I hadn’t yet seen. For a long time, I was under the impression that 1991’s The People Under the Stairs had somehow slipped through the cracks, but as I sat watching it the other day, I found myself remembering it in bits and pieces (up to and including the film’s outrageous finale). Still, I’m glad I chose this movie to kick off my “Craven Retrospective”, because even though I’d seen this horror / comedy before, I had forgotten how much fun it is.
Upon learning that his family is about to be evicted from their skid-row apartment, young Poindexter Williams (played by 12-year-old Brandon Adams), known as “Fool” to his family and friends, agrees to help Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) break into the spacious mansion belonging to their landlords, the Robesons (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). Hoping to find Mr. Robeson’s rare coin collection, the trio is instead drawn into what appears to be a house of horrors, complete with a savage Rottweiler and a group of near-crazed, cannibalistic children who, for years, have been held prisoner in the basement. To top it off, the Robesons themselves are insane, not to mention heavily armed. Aided by the couple’s daughter Alice (A.J. Langer), as well as “Roach” (Sean Whalen), one of the basement dwellers who is now living in the walls of the house, Fool searches desperately for a way out, but will he find one in time, or will Mr. Robeson and his trusty shotgun find him instead?
The kids trapped in the Robeson’s basement (The so-called “People under the Stairs”) are pretty darn creepy, what with their pale skin and voracious appetite for human flesh (which they devour on more than one occasion). But when it comes to crazy, nobody can touch the house’s owners. Played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (who, at the time, were also appearing in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), the Robesons are completely off their rockers, making them much more frightening than any of the house’s other residents. While searching for Fool and Roach, who are hiding somewhere in the walls, Mr. Robeson, decked out in what looks like a leather S&M outfit, angrily fires his shotgun in all directions, hoping that one of the blasts will eventually hit their mark.
Yet as loony as he is, it’s Mrs. Robeson who’ll truly send a shiver up your spine. A cross between Piper Laurie’s psychotically religious mother in Carrie and Bette Davis’ delusional Baby Jane in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Mrs. Robeson is an egotistical tyrant, tormenting poor Alice every chance she gets (after discovering that she’s been helping Fool, Mrs. Robeson tosses Alice into a steaming hot bath, vigorously scrubbing the girls’ skin as she screams in agony). Both deliver performances that are over-the-top, but whereas McGill’s character is occasionally a source of comedy (he’s constantly hitting his head or falling down), Robie is downright spooky, and we know that, despite the fact she isn’t the one waving the rifle around, her Mrs. Robeson is always the more dangerous of the two.
The house itself, with its automatic locks, unbreakable windows, and collapsible stairs (which, with the push of a button, transform into a slippery ramp), is definitely cool, and the perfect setting for what proves to be a wild film. But along with the horror and comedy, The People Under the Stairs also has plenty to say about society in general, throwing a spotlight on poverty and the trials faced by those who struggle to make ends meet (Despite the fact they’re committing a crime, we find ourselves rooting for Fool and the others, mostly because we realize stealing is the only course of action they have left).
As George Romero did with his Living Dead series, Craven blends this social commentary neatly into a kick-ass horror movie that, along with effectively delivering its message, is a guaranteed good time.