Over the years, horror movies have proven to be a way for filmmakers to deliver powerfully blunt political statements. While George A. Romero has said that the subtext of Night of the Living Dead only occured to him after the fact, his zombie movies since then have all been angry satires that are very specific to the time they were produced. John Carpenter finished the 1980s with They Live, a cynical, deliberately lowbrow attack on the social and economic inequality that we accept as the way things are. A few years later, one of Carpenter and Romero's contemporaries, Wes Craven, made his own bloody social commentary with The People Under the Stairs. While Craven's movies, even the weaker ones, had always been loaded with subtext, the story of a kid from the ghetto (Brandon Adams) who breaks into the house of a corrupt landlord and his wife (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), only to discover that they're more sinister and depraved than he could have imagined, is his most overtly political movie. While it's not entirely successful, it stands out in a decade where horror movies largely avoided any kind of political point of view.
While Craven is certainly well-known, he's always been a bit underdiscussed outside of Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street and, to a lesser extent, The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. He's not as stylish a visual storyteller as Carpenter, and even his best movies can be a bit uneven. But he's also unusually smart about storytelling archetypes and their thematic underpinnings, though his movies are philosophical in such an unpretentious way that it makes their ideas easy to overlook. With The People Under the Stairs, the message is impossible to ignore - the perverse husband and wife keep children they've abducted locked in their basement for disobeying their rules, and they torture the adolescent "daughter" they've stolen (A.J. Langer) for minor infractions. They live comfortably off the money they've purloined from their tenants, who live in squalor, and they keep their riches locked behind an absurd series of security systems and booby traps. The analogy for the one percent, before we called them that, isn't completely coherent - it's never clear why, exactly, they abduct and imprison children - but it's still pretty potent, with McGill and Robie's characters serving as a freakshow version of a "traditional" way of life that masks all sorts of exploitation and general weirdness.
The movie mashes together a lot of elements from different sources, with varying degrees of success. Casting Twin Peaks couple McGill and Robie nods towards Lynchian weirdness, and the dark fairytale aspect of the story makes for an interesting contrast with the more realistic scenes of Adams' life in the slums. But Craven also includes Home Alone-style slapstick, with Adams foiling his captors, that doesn't work at all and serves to make the villains less threatening. On the other hand, the many sudden tonal shifts make for an entertaining, unpredictable ride - I can't tell you exactly how the movie arrives at McGill wearing a gimp suit and brandishing a shotgun, but I'm glad it does. The People Under the Stairs isn't Craven's strongest work (I'll actually be writing about one of his better movies tomorrow), but it's got a brain and a point of view, and I appreciate that it's a totally unique experience at a time when the genre was becoming increasingly reliant on formula.
U.S. Release Date: November 1, 1991 (Also released that day: Highlander 2: The Quickening, Billy Bathgate, Year of the Gun, 29th Street)
What critics said at the time:
"Into this nightmare world comes Fool, suffering gladly once he teams up with the latest snatchee, Alice (A.J. Langer). They become avengers, racing through a house that has more hidden passages than 'Finnegans Wake' and setting up an ending that both Danny DeVito and Frank Capra would appreciate. Unfortunately, all this is totally ludicrous and badly set up." - Richard Harrington, Washington Post
"Propping up this story are a myriad of issues and themes that range from social injustice, racial prejudice, child abuse and community solidarity. It's a distinctly urban horror tale that looks at the sinister pathologies that go on behind closed doors. It's also wryly funny. When Woman exclaims 'You children will be the death of me' or Man bellows at the noisemakers below 'Don't make me have to come down there,' it's like some typical family portrait as seen through a refracting surface of parody." - Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle