#16 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
Looking at the IMDb rating of The People Under the Stairs, it seems like this is close to a fan favorite. It’s one of his highest rated films (only at a 6.4, mind you), but I was simply bored silly by this attempt at the variation of a haunted house film. There’s also supposed to be a heavy subtext to the film, but the characterization of the two main villains is so broadly comic (while not actually being funny) that I’m not even sure what the target is supposed to be. Combine that with the idea of the house being America doesn’t gel with the actual movements of the plot and motives of the characters, and you’ve got one steaming pile of a mess of a film.
Fool (Brandon Adams) is a boy living in the slums of Los Angeles with a sickly mother who can’t work and threats of eviction from their landlord. In an effort to earn some money, Fool teams up with Leroy (Ving Rhames) to rob their landlords Eldon (Everett McGill) and Mrs. Robeson (Wendy Robie) (the actors who played a married couple in Twin Peaks). There are rumors that the house is home to a collection of gold coins, and because the Robesons want to inflate rent prices on terrible apartments to drive out their tenants, tearing down the terrible buildings to replace them with nicer, more expensive places, they feel it is justified to steal from them. One thing about this sort of convention (like in Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks) is that I never feel too against the landlords. The tenants want to stay in rat-infested places with horrible rent? They can’t find other apartments? Whatever. It’s what they want. I get it.
So, they sneak in, and they end up trapped, behind locked doors and windows. Leroy gets chased down and killed while Fool remains hidden from the Robesons and their dog long enough to meet Alice (A.J. Langer), the Robesons’ supposed daughter who has been trapped in the house her whole life and who secretly feeds the titular people who live under the stairs, a group of voiceless men, pale at the lack of sunlight, that the Robesons’ keep below for…reasons. One of these, Roach (Sean Whalen) has escaped into the walls of the house, and helps Fool when he’s captured and left to get eaten by the rest.
Being trapped in a single location on a limited budget doesn’t really do Wes Craven any favors, and he really struggles to fill the runtime with anything of particular interest. This is where most of the lore behind the Robesons gets introduced, none of which makes all that much sense (they steal children from the neighborhood to keep them in the basement and live in constant fear of them getting out and murdering them) or is funny (ooo…Eldon sometimes runs around in a gimp costume because…reasons…isn’t that funny?). Roach sacrifices his life to get Fool out, giving him a handful of gold coins and extracting a promise to save Alice.
So, he goes, gives the money to a kindly old man who promises to take care of his mother, and then Fool goes back. Now, in a competent comedy, the insanity that erupts at the end of the film would be an ever-increasing series of incredulous events that built on top of each other into a comedic crescendo that busts a gut. This uncomfortable finale, though, can’t negotiate the horror and comedic elements (not that either are really all that effective). It feels like the older actors, especially McGill (probably the largest shining light in the whole film), have an idea of what they’re supposed to do in the finale, but when McGill really has nothing funnier to do than run around in a gimp costume, he’s floundering.
I think one of the problems at the core of the film is the use of children as main characters mixed with the rather gruesome nature of the violence that plays out. Without the violence, this does feel like a vehicle designed for children, a sort of Monster Squad type film. It’s an introduction to children in terms of horror, but the weird sex and extreme gore make it inappropriate for child audiences. I think the childishness of the comedy and cartoonish nature of the gore was actually designed to appeal to children, but if it were the case, Craven misjudged badly.
The actual final moments of the film make it obvious that the whole thing was supposed to have been a satire of something. I wouldn’t be surprised if Craven had something specific about America in mind, but if the house is America, then the message is that people want to flee it because it’s decrepit and awful, that the wealth of the country is hidden and not being utilized to help anyone. But that goes up against the idea that the Robesons’ are trying to develop land, investing money, to make things better. If there’s a message here, it’s incoherent at best.
Unfunny, unscary, incoherent, and uninvolving, The People Under the Stairs joins the ignominious ranks of some of Wes Craven’s worst work.