(1991) director Wes Craven
I don’t know if “inspired” is the right word, but “influenced” and “curious” after having re-seen Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), I decided that I felt up for re-visiting some of Craven’s other films that I’d remembered liking. So, as part of that, I watched his 1986 teen Frankenstein robot movie Deadly Friend and then I queued up his oddball, chaotic, comedic 1991 film, The People Under the Stairs.
I’d recalled about The People Under the Stairs that it was less pure horror, a little more whacko, and quite funny. I’d also recalled thinking that it bore some influence of something else but wasn’t entirely able to recall exactly what that influence was, meaning it felt a little different than your average Craven film. And what’s interesting is that it is very different in almost every way from, say, Deadly Friend. Deadly Friend was quite a hack-job of a production, poor quality, hackneyed storytelling, bad cinematography, just barely tolerable (and yet somehow still having something likable about it.)
The People Under the Stairs has quite striking cinematography. In this case, shot by cinematographer Sandi Sissel and production design by Bryan Jones. From our first shot of the crazy villains of the movie, a husband-wife/brother-sister pair of cuckoos, the camerawork is a clear leap up from Deadly Friend, hovering at waist-level, not quite showing the faces of the man and woman as it introduces them.
The film is very odd. The story is about a young African American boy named “Fool” who along with a couple of good-natured thugs, breaks into a large spooky old house belonging to the slumlords of the neighborhood, hoping to find some gold coins rumored to be hidden there. Little do they know that these slumlords, the brother and sister mentioned above, played with great aplomb by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, are about a 1000 times more crazy than anyone would have believed.
Their house is wired to lock doors, turn on and off electricity, so it’s a trap, a prison. They’ve been abducting children for years and when the boys misbehave, they “remove the bad bits” and lock them in the cellar, turning them into “the people under the stairs” who are semi-zombie like cannibals but essentially young adult males with varying degrees of prosthetic make-up. They also have a “daughter”, a young abused and still quite innocent girl played by A.J. Langer, who lives as their captive. And very quickly after getting into the house, the two adult thieves are killed and Fool is left to fend for himself against these nut-jobs.
The cast is up and down really good. Fool is played by Brandon Quintin Adams and has a lot of charm and wit and likability, and there is something about Alice (Langer) in her white dress, haunted eyes, and long brown hair that really feels very sad and desperate. Sean Roach plays “Roach”, an escaped “person from under the stairs” who is a bit of a mute-punk Robin Hood who lives in the walls of the house and befriends Alice and Fool. And McGill and Robie are top-notch as the way-out kooky killers/psychopaths, particularly because they don’t fall into any one category of strange. They’re all over the place, particularly when the sort of retro-looking McGill (they both have a sort of twisted 1950’s-ness to their appearances) dons a full-body bondage suit and mask and runs helter-skelter through the house with a shotgun, shooting up the walls, trying to kill them.
The chaos and camerawork, I think, borrows a bit from Evil Dead II (1986), with its manic energy and strong character. But additionally, Craven is perhaps influenced by David Lynch, in particular Twin Peaks the TV show, which is where he found McGill and Robie (also playing husband and wife). Whereever he got his ideas from, the film is really quite fun, funny, and truly strange. That’s not to say that it’s without its shortcomings.
The whole premise that McGill and Robie are slumlords of the ghetto, kicking out the poor African Americans and tearing down the buildings, throwing up new high-rises in their place is a fine enough plot point. But Craven tries to take that to the next level of social commentary in that (along with all their other strange character traits, like pseudo-Christian beliefs, “Burn in hell!”), they are also inherently racist (though this only attempts to show itself once explicitly). But at the end of the film when “the community” is brought together to try to rescue Fool from the house, and Fool’s sister and grandfather arrive, demonstrating something more than mere rescue, Craven attempts to make it something more socially relevant.
At the end of the film, after a major explosion blows thousands of dollar bills into the air, falling among the ethnically diverse “community”, people grab the money and start partying to the hip-hop tune whose mantra is “Do the Right Thing”. This whole angle of the film feels as hackneyed as anything from Deadly Friend. Though I did like the oddly unwrapped up ending in which these mutant cannibal “people under the stairs” just escape in the chaos and apparently enter society.
Given the inconsistency of Craven’s work, these productions must get a lot of help from whomever else is working on them. But however it all came together, The People Under the Stairs is still quite a bit of a hoot. The main image that I’d maintained had been McGill in the full bondage suit and mask running around with a shotgun, which is comical enough, but what’s rich and more interesting is that the insanity of the characters is just so plain off-kilter and largely undefined that it makes them interesting. It doesn’t matter exactly why nor does it matter that it doesn’t make sense. It’s actually a lot more fun and demented because it just plain doesn’t.