Wes Craven could never be accused of approaching his horror films half-assed. For most of his career, if the writer-director had things to say, he damn well said them, and in brutal fashion. His first film, The Last House on the Left, was a hard-to-watch exercise in what depraved lengths grieving parents might go to avenge something more heinous; A Nightmare on Elm Street told us that not even our little suburban neighborhoods were safe when our dreams are being invaded; and The Serpent and the Rainbow played on everybody’s fear of not being in control of our own bodies. In the ’90s, Craven started going a little more urban with his films and the first of these is a true spiral into Hell, with a definite sense of dark humor — 1991’s The People Under the Stairs.
What makes The People Under the Stairs so unnerving is that it takes the idea of the weirdo family living just up the street and turns it into an ever-descending spiral into the macabre and insane. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is certainly scary, but what if that same family that lived out in the middle of nowhere moved in up the street from you, in a normal neighborhood? That idea is way creepier to me. What horrible things could be happening just over there? If you said, “keeping deformed and mutated children in cages in their weird cavernous basement and also robbing, murdering, and eating people,” then you are correct.
The film stars Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, literally fresh off of their roles as Big Ed and Nadine Hurley on Twin Peaks, as a twisted “couple” who have no names beyond “Mommy” and “Daddy,” which is extra creepy because they’re supposed to be brother and sister. Early on in the film, a young boy named Fool (Brandon Adams) and his associates Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) try to sneak into the house where the landlords who are evicting them live, in order to steal from them, but they soon discover the labyrinthine series of hallways and passages in the house. Spenser is killed and Fool and Leroy are chased by a huge dog until finally, Daddy comes home and shotguns Leroy to death. Now Fool is trapped, what’s he to do?!
Well, he manages to get inside the room of a young, clearly frightened girl named Alice (A.J. Langer) and she explains that there are lots of children in the house, most of them locked up downstairs for breaking one of the see/hear/speak no evil rules, and they’ve been made to be cannibals to survive. One of the kids has gotten out, a tongue-less ruffian named Roach (Sean Whalen), and is living in the walls. Fool eventually gets caught by Daddy and thrown to the cannibal children, but Roach helps him escape, only to be killed by Daddy himself. While dying, he gives Fool a bag of gold and a written plea for help. Fool tries to get Alice out, but she’s too scared, and Fool promises to come back.
Now, this movie comes across as grim and grisly, which it certainly is, but it’s also weirdly hilarious due to the performances of McGill and Robie. They’re so ridiculously, absurdly batshit crazy that you kind of can’t help but laugh. Robie’s performance is also deeply sad and you can tell at certain points that even she sees how crazy she’s become but can’t do anything about it. McGill on the other hand is a monster trying to put on the air of normalcy, as evidenced by Daddy walking around most of the movie in a leather gump outfit, toting a pump-action shotgun.
Craven’s always had a bit of the comedic in his movies, but this one is where he really starts to amp up the gallows humor, perhaps as a reaction to that franchise he helped create turning almost entirely to slapstick gore. Unlike those, though, he’s got something to say about the Reagan/Bush-era society with its fat-cat rich people literally killing and eating the lowly people whose homes they control. He also places the narrative firmly on children, making the threat of violence seem all the more sinister. These evil, greedy people aren’t just hurting us, they’re hurting our kids! On top of being a good companion piece to Texas Chain Saw, it also bears a thematic similarity to Brian Yuzna’s Society from a few years before.
August 11 will see the release of The People Under the Stairs in a new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray by Scream Factory. As usual, they’ve gathered a really impressive array of extras including a new commentary by Wes Craven, a new commentary by stars Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen, and Yan Birch, an interview with Wendy Robie (who seems like a delight), interviews with special effects makeup artists Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger, an interview with director of photography Sandi Sissel, an interview with composer Don Peake, and more. It’s a pretty packed disc and one fans of Craven will get a whole lot out of.