The People Under the Stairs

UK Release Date November 1991
Director Wes Craven
Starring Brandon Adams
Runtime 98 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Mark
Reviewed 1st August 2014

Wes Craven's best movie is also one of his least well known. The People Under The Stairs is an urban fairy tale, a social commentary on the devastating effect Reaganomics had on the black working class in the late 80s, the logical conclusion of which was the first Gulf War fought by soldiers from the poorest sections of American society that enabled the oil to flow and grease the capitalist ideal.

12 year old Fool feels the blight of gentrification first hand as he is to be evicted with his sister and cancer ridden mother by a mysterious couple who control most of the slum accommodation in the ghetto. By running these properties into the ground and evicting the tenants they can sell the land to big business and make a killing.

Fool teams up with a pair of older robbers in order to steal the fabulous riches believed to exist within the couple's heavily fortified home. This will pay for his mother’s treatment as she cannot afford a relatively simple operation that will save her life-a condemnation of the medical system by Craven.

Where Craven succeeds is having cast the morally corrupt pair of Mummy and Daddy with Twin Peaks duo Everett McGill and Wendy Robie. Their chemistry and familiarity from that series means that we buy their twisted family unit from the off. When Craven then reveals the true extent of their madness and how defunct they have become as human beings, our disbelief is well and truly suspended, such is the wild relish of McGill's and Robie's deranged performances.

They have withdrawn completely into their crumbling mansion draining the lifeblood of the black community they are supposed to serve. They are so afraid of their black neighbours that they have only their racism and warped view of Christianity to protect them from America's rapidly changing population. In fact they seem stuck in the middle of a time warp-a gothic version of 50s America such is their dress and speech and one Craven clearly despises; yet they hate even this blurred reality that leads us to believe they only find solace in their blood money.

The pair have imprisoned boys who have not lived up to their perfect child fantasies. They are deprived of light and watch an old television set which shows the famous night vision footage of the aerial attack on Baghdad. They are fed the flesh of dead workmen and have become Zombie-like, unable to mix with the wider community, perhaps another comment on the social and racial divide in America, keeping the sub-class firmly under the stairs.

Craven effortlessly blends cartoon violence with excessive gore as Daddy chases Fool and his friends through the house dressed in a gimp outfit. Daddy is at times hilariously injured by Fool, which reminds the audience of Home Alone or Tom and Jerry rather than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even this is used to comment on the zeitgeist of the early 90s as Fool having dropped a brick on Daddy’s head quips, "That must be one of those smart-bricks."

For all the darkly comic elements and bloody violence the most horrific scene is when Mummy scrubs her captive daughter in boiling hot water. Craven uses this scene to shock the audience into believing just how far removed she is from normal family life. Are the rich white minority so morally detached, so used to buying happiness that they think they can mould their family any way they see fit?

When Mummy later says, "There is no community" she doesn't realise that for all their hardship the black population have a sense of family and belonging, one she has helped form from her hatred and one she has ultimately excluded herself from like so many others in gated communities because of her fear and ignorance fed by the parasitic media establishment.

Craven has crafted a truly original piece in The People Under The Stairs, nothing quite like it exists and as an allegorical tale it is essential. But even more remarkable for the time of its release is the fact that the main character is a 12-year-old black boy played by Brandon Adams who carries the film effortlessly. 

Check out the trailer here.

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