The People Under The Stairs is an overlooked horror movie from writer and director Wes Craven. Here are some things about the film to know.
The People Under The Stairs is an often overlooked horror movie from writer and director Wes Craven. The 1991 film has proven to be a cult favorite with a lot of cultural relevance nearly thirty years later. That’s reflected in the news that Get Out director Jordan Peele is going to producing a remake of the movie. Peele’s track record with horror and focus on African-American protagonists makes this an ideal choice for him and gives a boost to the profile of the relatively obscure film.
The plot is basically in the title – there are people living under the stairs of a scary house belonging to a truly awful couple – but that’s just the beginning. The movie is about so much more than that. The People Under The Stairs is a movie that like its plot, hides a lot behind its walls.
10 Based On A True Story
Writer and director Wes Craven based the story of The People Under The Stairs in part on a real-world incident. In 1978, a pair of burglars forced their way into a home in Los Angeles. When the police showed up, they made a shocking and unrelated discovery. The couple living in the home had locked their two children in the basement of the home. This led him to craft the story of the hero Fool, who lives in a Los Angeles ghetto. His family can’t pay rent to the Robesons, so he breaks into their mansion to steal their rare coins and discovers dozens of missing kids locked away. Craven made the real-life story into one of his best films.
9 Social Commentary
The movie was unique at the time for a lot of reasons. One was the great deal of social commentary ingrained in the movie. The clash between the rich and racist Robeson landlords and their poor and African-American tenets like Fool and his family has many, many layers to it. The People Under The Stairs investigates issues of class in a way that feels very pertinent to right now. In an era of rapidly escalating rents in major cities like L.A., as well as a pandemic that induces a lot of economic stress, low to middle-class families are predominantly affected. They also tend to be people of color. Though the movie exaggerates a lot about the plot and characters, it doesn’t do so with the stark reality of economic hardship.
8 African-American Protagonist
Also unusual for the time, and really until just recently, was the film’s African-American protagonist. The People Under the Stairs tells the story of Poindexter “Fool” Williams, a 13-year old boy who just wants to help his sick mother get treatment and keep his family in their home. Craven could have easily focused on a white family and main character, but he had a history of focusing on African-Americans in his other movies as well (The Serpent and The Rainbow and Vampire In Brooklyn, one of the best 90s vampire movies).
7 Brandon Adams
Fool was played by the young and charismatic Brandon Adams, who also starred as Kenny DuNunez in one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, The Sandlot. Adams is perfect in the role, with just the right amount of zeal found in similar characters in movies like Home Alone or The Goonies, which may also be getting a remake soon.
Adams hasn’t been super active recently, but he had a great run in the 90s. He had starring roles in The Mighty Ducks, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and also provided the voice of Rai in the 2005 video game Kingdom Hearts II.
6 Twin Peaks Connection
The villains at the center of The People Under the Stairs are two of the creepiest – and fun – in Wes Craven’s catalog of killers. They also have a strong and unique connection to another seminal 90s franchise, Twin Peaks. Wendy Robie and Everett McGill starred as the strange couple of Nadine and Ed Hurley in the series (and the inscrutable film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Their chemistry and general weirdness led to Craven casting them as Mr. and Mrs. Robeson. Their demented cruelty made the movie almost campy in its tone. They refer to themselves as Mommy and Daddy in the movie but are only listed as Man and Woman in the credits.
5 See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
Worse than keeping young people looked up in the maze-like interior of the house, the Robesons also go to extraordinary and cruel lengths to keep them quiet. This is most obvious in the case of Roach, a young man trapped in the house with the others. The Robesons cut his tongue off to keep him from screaming. The concept of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil is of course a reference to Japanese imagery of three wise monkeys covering their eyes, ears, and mouth. It’s a central feature in the movie and is referred multiple times. In general, the axiom applies to people preserving the evil of their society by not acknowledging it. Here, it’s taken to perverse lengths.
4 Tarot Cards
Another major element of the story and meaning in The People Under the Stairs are tarot cards. Fool actually gets his name from The Fool card, which plays a lot of different ways in the movie. The People Under the Stairs begins with a tarot reading by the character of Ruby. The Fool generally reflects the ignorance of the person who draws it, but this isn’t the case with Fool in the movie. As Ruby says he “Ain’t the stupid kind of fool,” Ruby the reader says, “only the ignorant kind, ‘cause he’s only starting out.” Fool doesn’t know a lot about the world, but few if any people in the story know the full truth of the horrors in their community.
3 Meta Commentary
Wes Craven would later get very meta in the Scream franchise, a classic of the horror genre that shaped 90s horror. He also attempted a similar feat in the less successful New Nightmare. It’s arguable this interest in the horror genre commenting on itself started in The People Under the Stairs.
The movie is definitely commenting on society, but Craven is clearly bored with typical horror conventions. The Robesons are in some ways absurd, and the writer-director is more interested in the reality of Fool and his family than the haunted house aspect of the plot.
2 Scream Queen
The film’s other protagonist is Alice, the stolen daughter of the Robesons. Viewers going back to the film now may recognize her from another 90s cult classic – My So-Called Life. A.J. Langer portrayed the free-spirited Rayanne Graff in the short-lived but beloved television series. She played Alice a few years before and gave an excellent performance that portended a long career as a scream queen if she wanted. Langer continued to act but she’s very busy these days being actual royalty: Langer is the Countess of Devon in the United Kingdom. Langer became a member of the extended royal family when she married attorney Charles Courtenay, Lord Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, in 2004.
1 Attempted Reboot
Jordan Peele is bringing The People Under the Stairs back to the big screen, but the movie was almost rebooted before. Wes Craven had intended to remake the film in the early 2000s, with a bigger budget (the original was made for a paltry $6 million). Another of his films. The Last House On The Left, had been remade in 2009. After the film didn’t come together, he also pursued a series based on the show with the Syfy network. Sadly, Craven passed away in 2015 before work on the series could really get going. Now it seems the movie will finally its long-awaited remake.
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