Original release: November 1st, 1991
Running time: 102 minutes
Writer and director: Wes Craven
Cast: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A. J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen
I guess it would be safe to say I had a very sheltered childhood. My parents kept a close on me and rarely let me out of their sight, yet somehow I was always getting into tricky spots.
I remember I once tried to pry open a tin of red paint – to see what it looked like on the inside – by holding it upside down and shaking it over my head. Of course, the lid immediately popped off and I was drenched head to foot in flammable liquid. Thankfully, my parents weren’t far away and came rushing as I screamed “It was accident!” and after hours of being scrubbed clean and a firm telling off, I realised it wasn’t so bad being a kid and knowing they were always there to rescue me.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for two of the kids in Wes Craven’s 1991 film, The People Under The Stairs. After reading about it in horror magazines such as Shivers and Fangoria, which I bought regularly as a teenager in the early 90s, I was a little more than eager to see it.
Its story sees a young LA ghetto kid (Brandon Adams) ,who goes by the nickname “Fool”, finding out his family are about to be evicted by their landlords, the Robesons. Fool teams up with one of his older sister’s friend, Leroy (Ving Rhames), to plan a burglary on the Robesons’ house after they learn about the gold coins they have in there.
It turns out the burglars have more to fear from the house-owners than the other way around. The Robesons – Daddy and Mommy (Twin Peaks’ Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) – are a sadistic pair who inflict pain and cruelty on their daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), and get up to lots of other strange stuff too. When Fool and Lerory break in while Mommy and Daddy are out, they soon find it’s impossible to get back out and they’re locked in with the deranged Robesons who proceed to hunt them down.
While tough-talking Lerory bows out pretty quickly, Fool is left on his own to survive his stay in the house. Alice befriends him and explains the true horror of Mommy and Daddy; that the people who live in the walls and under stairs were the children who broke the rules and as a result have had parts of themselves amputated and have been raised as cannibals. Roach (Sean Whalen) is one of these, as a boy he tried to call for help and they removed his tongue. Alice has avoided the same fate by obeying the rules though she’s still subjected to Mommy’s wrath.
Eventually we see Fool captured by the pair and thrown into the basement where he watches Daddy dismember Lerory and feed him to the others. Alice and Roach then do everything they can so he might be able to get back out. There might even be a way for Fool to save his family’s home and rescue these poor, helpless kids from the deranged pair.
The People Under The Stairs treads that fine line between pure horror and black comedy to create a film I’ve never been able to forget. Brandon Adams, who had previously starred alongside Michael Jackson in Moonwalker (1988) is a likeable protagonist who’s making bad choices but for good reasons. When he realises Mommy and Daddy are actually brother and sister, he knows he has to make good on his promise to get Alice out.
Though the gore is strong, the scenes I always found most affecting were the ones with Mommy and Alice. We see her terrorizing the child by forcing her to scrub the floor after Lerory’s murder, and then throwing her into a bath of scalding hot water. This type of horror is psychologically more affecting than the carving and flaying we see going on in the basement.
As for the villains in the piece, Mommy and Daddy do make for a terrifying pair, but it’s good see Fool eventually making some good choices and doing something which eventually benefits his community. Who knows, the experience might even be enough to keep out of tricky spots in the future.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
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