The People Under The Stairs and Wes Craven’s suburban horror

An unusual film from Wes Craven, The People Under The Stairs still contains his fascination with horror in suburbia, Ryan writes...

In the late 60s and early 70s, horror cinema began to put aside the castles and capes of the past. Vampiric noblemen like Count Dracula were being replaced by new monsters like Mark Lewis, the serial killer photographer in Peeping Tom, and murderous motelier Norman Bates in Psycho.

Kicking and screaming, horror was moving into the present – into contemporary cities and respectable suburbs. In literature, authors such as Ira Levin, Richard Matheson and Stephen King were at the forefront of this new movement, with their work reinventing stories of the spectral, satanic and paranormal for a new age.

Wes Craven was one of a young generation of filmmakers who brought about a similar change in 70s cinema. Along with George A Romero, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, Craven built on the groundwork of Peeping Tom and Psycho in the 60s, and with the low-budget, hugely controversial Last House On The Left (1972), reiterated the notion that movie monsters could be ordinary-looking people rather than mythological beings with fangs.

Although Craven would never make another film quite as controversial and unseemly as Last House again, it set the framework for the rest of his directorial career. Both Last House and his next horror film, the more approachable yet still graphic The Hills Have Eyes (1977), hinted at a hidden savagery lurking beneath the respectable facade of middle class America, where well-to-do white people with nice teeth were capable of as much bloodletting as the backwater antagonists.

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In his subsequent films, Craven repeatedly explored the horrific possibilities of an apparently normal, comfortable suburbia. In A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), the murderous actions of angry parents turn a perverted school janitor into a dream demon, with grim consequences for their teenage children. In Deadly Friend (1986), a robot runs amock in an otherwise serene US community, with Anne Ramsey’s exploding head being one of this lesser-known Craven joint’s indelible images.

There’s also a certain subversive glee to be found in 1991‘s The People Under The Stairs, which inverts not only the typical home invasion thriller – making the robbers into sympathetic heroes and the homeowners the villains – but also audience expectations of Craven’s work to date. There are horror moments, certainly (a body’s hung upside-down and eviscerated, a character showing off the remains of his brutally hacked-out tongue), but The People Under The Stairs is an action adventure and a satirical black comedy as much as an exercise in terror.

In fact, the film has much in common with the much-loved 80s children’s staple, The Goonies, with its traps, hidden gold and adorable sidekicks – elements that jar somewhat with its gorier, kinkier moments. The People Under The Stairs’ distributors, seemingly perplexed by it all, sold the movie as a straight horror film with a giant skull on the poster. 

It’s a strange stew for sure, but The People Under The Stairs also contains just about everything you’d expect from a good Craven movie. For one thing, it’s about a family whose respectable veneer is but a thin cover for some seriously sick tendencies hiding underneath, and how their nightmarish day-to-day existence is laid bare by burglar Leroy (Ving Rhames) and his young partner in crime, Fool (Brandon Adams).

According to Craven, the plot was partly inspired by a real-life case. When two African-American burglars broke into a supposedly normal Los Angeles home in the late 1970s, they inadvertently caused the police to discover a pair of children locked away by their parents, and the story of a sick family lurking in the midst of a comfortable Californian neighbourhood captured headlines.

“What appealed to me was the thought of a hidden truth that was radically different from the surface appearance,” Craven said of this story, “and the fact that this was taking place in a neighbourhood where, supposedly, people were enjoying the good middle class life.”

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Craven took this story and, over the course of several years and rewrites, filtered it through the fairytale logic of his own dreams, resulting in what would become one of the most unusual horror-adventure-comedy mash-ups of the 1990s.

In The People Under The Stairs, Leroy and 13-year-old Fool live a miserable existence in a Los Angeles ghetto. With Fool’s mother sick and unable to afford medical treatment, and the family behind on their rent, he’s recruited by Leroy to break into a rambling mansion belonging to the Robesons. As movie fate would have it, the Robesons are also Fool’s landlords, who own half of the ghetto’s dilapidated buildings and make a fortune from the rent.

Leroy has heard that the Robesons have a fortune in gold coins stashed somewhere in their dusty Victorian pile, so with Fool and another professional thief, Spenser (Jeremy Roberts), they resolve to break in and grab it. Unfortunately, the Robesons – snarling matriarch Mrs Robeson (Wendy Robie) and malevolent father figure Eldon (Everett McGill) – have not only turned their house into a fortress, with unbreakable glass and traps lying everywhere, but they also have a habit of murdering anyone who crosses their front doorstep. Then there’s the nasty, cannibalistic secret they keep hidden in the basement… 

Fast-moving and blackly comic, The People Under The Stairs is at its best when it concentrates on the bizarre pairing of Mr and Mrs Robeson. Although both appear to stand for traditional family values, they’re actually brother and sister, and the girl they call their daughter, Alice (AJ Langer) is just one of several children they’ve kidnapped and kept hidden over the years.

Fool stumbles into this strange alternate universe, where all normal laws of morality appear to have been suspended. There are lost children hiding in the walls with their tongues cut out, dead bodies strung up in the basement, and Mr Robeson hunting through the corridors in a gimp outfit.

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Yet despite all the horrors awaiting Fool in the Robeson household, Craven goes for the atmosphere of a dark fantasy rather than anything approaching the hard-edged sleaze of his earliest movies. Fool and Alice are like a modern Hansel and Gretel, hiding from the evil adults and trying to find a way out of the labyrinthine house. There are moments of gore, certainly, but these are constantly matched by scenes of slapstick – a dog non-fatally electrocuted by a door knob, perhaps, or a villain knocked out by a catapult shot to the head.

There’s a sense that Craven enjoys the satirical aspects of the story most of all. Having grown up in a strictly religious family himself – as a child, his “fundamentalist Baptist” parents didn’t even allow him to go to the cinema – Craven presents the Robesons as a ‘family’ twisted by their own sexual repression.

Further, Craven makes a clear link between the Robesons’ depravity and their increasing wealth. “They’re the tail end of the craziest family you ever heard of,” Grandpa Booker tells Fool in a late scene. “Every generation more insane than the one before it. Started out as a family running a funeral home, selling cheap coffins for expensive prices. Then they got their fingers into real estate, started making a lot of money taking over people’s homes. The more money they got, the greedier they got. The greedier they got, the crazier they got…” 

Craven spells out his anti-greed satire a bit too forcefully in the final act, with an admittedly quite funny doorstep speech about the Robeson’s money-grabbing (“I represent the association of people who have been unjustly evicted, exploited and generally fucked over”) and an explosive climax which results in the literal redistribution of wealth.

Nevertheless, Wendy McGill and Everett McGill (both of Twin Peaks fame) are great value as the demented antagonists, bringing equal parts menace and comedy to their performances. With the Robesons, Craven also brings the preoccupations he displayed in Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes to what might seem like a logical conclusion.

Like the killers in those early Craven horrors, the Robesons have their own warped sense of right and wrong. Craven seems to take a sly pleasure in taking something as benign as the family unit and rigging it up with traps – and just as the film’s house is filled with spikes, metal doors and disappearing staircases, so its evil mother and father are full of violence and sick proclivities. 

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Made for a relatively low $6m, The People Under The Stairs was written and shot without the fear of studio interference, and that shows in the way it gamely switches between playful and menacing tones, action and social commentary – Craven’s exploration of the rich-poor divide making the movie as relevant now as it was in the early 90s. Admittedly, not all of the creative choices work – Fool and Alice’s constant brushes with Prince, the Robesons’ bloodthirsty dog, become grindingly repetitive, for example, and the last third brings with it some glaring plot holes – but it’s a far more interesting, satisfying film than, say, Shocker (1989) or Vampire In Brooklyn (1994). 

Craven’s fascination with murder in suburbia continued in the hugely successful Scream series, which began in 1996. While Scream and its sequels played around with the conventions of the slasher genre, they also repeated one of Craven’s pet themes: that a capacity for murder can reside in anyone, regardless of how middle-class and respectable they might appear. That same theme recurred yet again in Red Eye (2005), a Hitchcockian thriller in which a handsome, respectable man (played by Cillian Murphy) is revealed to be a cold-eyed terrorist, and then a rather pathetic would-be assassin.

For its sheer creative abandon, though, The People Under The Stairs stands as an unusual highlight in Craven’s lengthy catalogue of horrors. Refreshingly different from the slasher movies the director’s typically associated with, it’s still vintage Craven in every other respect: an entertaining, slyly nasty story about the evil that goes on behind a seemingly respectable suburban front door.

The People Under The Stairs is out on Blu-ray on the 4th November in the UK.