The People Under the Stairs is a relatively obscure horror movie from writer and director Wes Craven that has become a cult classic. The 1991 movie is now getting a remake from Get Out director Jordan Peele who will produce the new movie. The original movie focuses on major social issues – race, class, and religion – and was in many ways ahead of its time. It’s only more relevant today. In other ways, it hasn’t aged too well.
That shouldn’t be too surprising. Wes Craven was always on the leading edge of horror, but he wasn’t above reverting to the genre’s most basic (and bloody) instincts. The People Under The Stairs is a classic example of an ambitious movie with some dated flaws.
10 Aged Well: Performances
Without a doubt, the biggest asset of the movie is its performances from a diverse and accomplished cast. The movie wouldn’t work at all without the electric marquee performance by Brandon Adams, who played 13-year-old protagonist Poindexter “Fool” Williams.
Fool wants to help his mother get medical treatment and keep his family from being evicted by the truly despicable Robeson family. Adams is outstanding as the hero of the story, bring a lot of energy and humor to the part, something he also did as Kenny DuNunez in one of the best sports movies on Disney+, The Sandlot.
9 It Didn’t: Low Budget
The movie was made for a paltry $6 million dollars. That’s right about in line with most horror movies of the period (though it didn’t quite make it a B-movie). Low budgets tend to work in favor of horror movies. It’s almost as much about what you don’t see as what you do.
A lack of money worked against The People Under the Stairs, especially in retrospect. The makeup of the children locked away in the Robeson house is bad even for the time. The trapped children are also front and center for much of the final act of the film, which focuses on action style set pieces that the movie really didn’t have money for.
8 Aged Well: It’s Just Weird
The People Under The Stairs delves into pertinent social issues (then and now) but it also throws a heavy dose of weird. Nowhere is that more plain than in the film’s villains. The Robesons are landlords in Los Angeles with absolutely zero empathy for the economic hardship of Fool and his family.
The Robesons appear to be brother and sister but call each other Mommy and Daddy (they’re identified only as Man and Woman in the credits). They’re played with manic and histrionic gonzo by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, who played another strange couple in the early 90s television series Twin Peaks.
7 It Didn’t: Heavy Handed
The movie takes on a lot for a low-budget horror movie. That isn’t a bad thing. Dawn of the Dead is a classic zombie movie as much for its gore as it is its social commentary. The People Under The Stairs does a fantastic job of spotlighting issues that are still woefully relevant today. But it could sometimes be heavy-handed about it.
The movie makes its villains too cartoonish in many ways, making Mommy and Daddy almost absurd in their behavior relative to the serious story. It also is super obvious with its themes and imagery, laying it on thick with tarot cards that foretell the story (and give Fool his name).
6 Aged Well: Satire
As obvious as the movie can be at times, it is a satirical take on the greed of the era. The movie makes no bones about taking on the greed of capitalism in the late 80s and early 90s with the Robesons. The People Under The Stairs transposes the 80s Me First era embodied in President Reagan right into the Reagan-esque Daddy (with Mommy being Nancy Reagan).
This depiction of the First Family was so effective – or obvious – that it was commented on by several critics when the movie came out. Most agreed the movie handled the satire effectively.
5 It Didn’t: Truly Cringe-Worthy In Parts
Wes Craven is a master of horror but he also sometimes lets his instincts get the better of him. He liked to mix horror and comedy, as he did in Vampire In Brooklyn, but it was one of his worst movies.
The madcap energy of the Robesons very nearly sends The People Under the Stairs spiraling out of control, and so does some of their most awful moments. Daddy preys on his ‘daughter’ Alice, played by My So-Called Life alum A.J. Langer, in one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie. Also, their verbal abuse of African-Americans is truly cringe-worthy.
4 Aged Well: Diversity
Perhaps the greatest strength of the movie is its diversity. Wes Craven doesn’t make token gestures toward representation in the story. The movie focuses on a diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles that includes African-Americans, Latinos, and white people.
Fool is the main character, very rare for the period and until just recently. Ving Rhames plays LeRoy, his mother’s boyfriend, in one of his earliest roles. The movie was an outlier at the time for Hollywood but thankfully wasn’t singular.
3 It Didn’t: Too Broad
The People Under The Stairs is ostensibly a horror movie. It was definitely sold that way in the marketing, with a poster that featured a skull looming over a typical suburban neighborhood. In the end, the movie really wasn’t that scary. It was actually a broad comedy in many respects, which confused the tone.
From the Robesons to the Home Alone antics of Fool in their house, the movie sometimes isn’t sure what kind of movie it wants to be.
2 Aged Well: Timely Relevance
The People Under the Stairs confronts racism and classism in early 90s America. It also prefigures concerns about gentrification that are much more prevalent today.
The Robesons are nakedly capitalistic and look to push out tenants from a predominantly African-American neighborhood for the purpose of getting richer, whiter people in. Fool’s mother is sick and doesn’t have health insurance. The regressive, closed off Robesons, literally walled up in their house, suggest the more figurative bubbles different groups of people live in today.
1 It Didn’t: Still Relevant
The saddest part of the movie perhaps is that it is still relevant. It came out not long before the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles. That event wasn’t singular and 2020, of course, saw massive national riots in response to similar injustices.
The same issues that animated The People Under the Stairs – race, class, inequality – are still alive and well in the world today. That makes a remake a natural idea, but it’s a sad reminder that these issues persist even now and it can make the movie a lot less enjoyable for some.
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