The People Under the Stairs (1991)


*. Movies and memory. It’s not just that we remember movies we never saw, replaying scenes and lines that are wholly imagined in the cinema of our mind, but that we imagine them in entirely different personal and cultural contexts.
*. I remember The People Under the Stairs. And I remember when it came out. But I didn’t put the two together. I had my landmarks all messed up.
*. First example: When we see a television playing a news broadcast of the first Gulf War I was stunned. How could that be? Didn’t this movie come out long before that? Was the Gulf War twenty-five years ago now? It was.
*. Second example: Ving Rhames before he was Ving Rhames. Meaning before Pulp Fiction, which was 1994. And yet I was sure Pulp Fiction had come out before this movie. Wasn’t that where the gimp costume came from? Where had we seen one of those before?
*. Perhaps what confused me was my feeling that this movie was a product of the ’80s and not the early ’90s. The decades make a difference. 1991 was a transitional moment between the classic horror flicks of the ’80s and the self-reflexive horror-comedies of the ’90s — a transition that Craven would play a major role in (I talk more about this historical scheme, as it relates to the slasher genre, in my notes on Urban Legend).
*. In any event, The People Under the Stairs is a messy movie. It’s the sort of flick usually described as “uneven” or as having a mix of tones, in this case ranging from slapstick comedy to weird horror. Or you might just call it “interesting.” It is that.
*. It is, at least, a lot more interesting than most of the generic horror fare that was cluttering the big screen at the time. But I don’t find it funny or suspenseful. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are borrowed from Twin Peaks, and perhaps that show embodied the disturbing note Craven was going for. But I don’t think he got it.
*. The political message, of the rich white family exploiting (literally feeding on) the poor black folk of the ghetto, seems crude to me, but again you have to give Craven points for being original. Another date check: Candyman (dealing with a similar theme) came out the next year.
*. Perhaps Craven just wasn’t interested in this angle very much. He seems drawn back to the ur-myth of his earliest movies, like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, where a decent, “normal” family (in this film Fool, his sister, and his ill mother) are in a battle for survival with a demonic parody of a family that has gone deranged and feral, associated with incest and cannibalism.
*. It was inspired by a true story about some burglars who broke into a house where the children had been kept prisoner. And again Craven seems to have had the uncanny ability to be ahead of the curve as this was a story that would become even more resonant after the horrific cases of Wolfgang Přiklopil and Josef Fritzl came to light. Then, in 2016, we’d go down into the same basement in Don’t Breathe, one of that year’s biggest box office hits.
*. It’s a simple film. The set-up has it play like a haunted-house ride at a fairground, with all the running through narrow spaces, hanging skeletons, sliding stairways, and security mechanisms operated by a central control panel. That the main characters are children adds to this same sense of dark carnival.
*. Something more interesting might have been done with Mommy and Daddy, the degenerate terminus of a family that has seen “every generation more insane than the one before it.” But instead they are left as grotesques who only run around screaming about killing and burning in hell.
*. This is actually pretty typical for Craven, who likes to paint in broad strokes. He had interesting ideas, but seemed indifferent to the actual business of writing. He partnered well with Kevin Williamson.
*. Before Craven’s death there was a lot of talk about remaking this one, as has happened to so many of the classic horror films of the ’80s. I hope they leave it alone. Based on the history of twenty-first century horror remakes (or franchise “resets”) they would probably try for a darker, more realistic treatment of the material, replacing the satire with depressing cruelty and general vileness. I don’t need that.


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