Saturday, October 19, 2013

Scary Movie Month Movie Club #3: The People Under the Stairs

Run, Fool!

Week Three in the Scary Movie Month Movie Club finds us traveling back to the 1990s, a notoriously bad decade for horror movies. Director Wes Craven had been on an incredibly uneven run since A Nightmare on Elm Street when he made The People Under the Stairs in 1993, and it wound up being one of the most interesting and unique movies in his filmography. You may not like everything about it, but it's a horror movie that's very much of its time and which tries to say some things that Craven hadn't really attempted before or since.

What do you all think? Let's start talking.

If you haven't already seen The People Under the Stairs and you're a Netflix subscriber, it's available to watch here.


  1. Ultimately I was disappointed in the movie. There are a lot of things to like about it, including:
    1. Brandon Adams give a very appealing performance as Fool. And I LOVE the opening Tarot card reading.
    2. Always reliable Ving Rhames is both charismatic and cowardly as Leroy.
    3. Wendy Robie is pretty damn scary - and I thought Norman's mom was nuts...
    4. The house itself is a masterpiece of hidden doors and traps.

    And now for the not so good...
    1. Everett McGill is just way too over the top as "Daddy." When he gets to screaming and hooting he's no longer scary - he's just goofy.
    2. The titular "people" seem to be mostly plot devices - they're scary when they're supposed to be, and friendly when they're supposed to be. Poor Roach is the only one who registers, but after he fulfills his plot function of getting Fool on the road to saving Alice, he's quickly bumped off.
    3. For a while, I thought Craven was making a movie about "family," with "Mommy" and "Daddy" creating a twisted 50's style parody of the nuclear family. I was expecting the unfortunates in the basement to be used as counterpoint (Fool's own family isn't on screen long enough to register), but they aren't really. Ultimately Craven goes for the easier target of the haves versus the have nots.

    Let me be clear that I still liked this movie - but ultimately I don't think it quite lives up to its promise.

    1. I seem to remember reading somewhere that McGill and Robie are supposed to be Ronald and Nancy Reagan -- hence the "Mommy" and "Daddy."

    2. That never occurred to me. That's oddly fascinating.

    3. I think that becomes more interesting when you consider the financial aspects of the film. Such as 'Daddy' admitting he spent hours counting money and playing with it. They hide it away and exploit others out of greed, twisted values and Christian hypocrisy. It seems to be commenting on that 'greed is good' message those in power in the 80's were so keen to put out there. This is where I think the film has things in common with fairy tales, which are traditionally told from a working class point of view, where the rich and greedy are ugly villains and the working class hero gets the girl and the money in the end. Look at The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Anderson, which is similar to Aladdin. The figures of authority and power are destroyed by the end, and the penniless hero of the story marries the princess.

  2. @ Steve K - I'm with you on McGill but I feel like Robie matches him pound for pound in the over-the-top department.

    They were actually the biggest draw for me when this was originally released because I was a massive Twin Peaks fan and was super excited to see Nadine and Big Ed get all villainous on the big screen. It didn't hurt that I was also a big Wes Craven fan, which didn't really bite me in the ass until a few years later when Vampire In Brooklyn happened.

    As for People Under the Stairs, I love it when horror movies double as social commentary, even when they're as heavy-handed about it as People tends to be. Brandon Adams is pretty great as Fool, but many of the performances in the movie (along with much of the subtext) are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Mommy and Daddy especially are played so broadly that too much of the movie threatens to devolve into comedy. I can't even imagine this movie playing at something like the Massacre these days because it would almost certainly be completely drowned out in ironic-hipster douchebag laughter.

    It's almost charming that the movie seems to be trying to find a way to play it broad and po-faced at the same time. Craven got better at balancing horror & humor (for a while at least...let's try to forget Scream 3 & 4, shall we?) but he has a difficult time maintaining a singular tone here.

    Ultimately I come down on the side of liking the movie. I like what it wants to say about ghetto life and familial relations, I'm just not sure it ever finds the right balance between being a fun horror movie and an "important message" movie.

  3. I actually never saw this film until a few years ago. In the early 90s, Wes Craven had kinda fallen off my radar so between 1990-1994, I didn't see anything he worked on until New Nightmare.

    What got me interested in seeing this practically forgotten film years later is that I read a great essay (by John McCarty) that stated this was the last film in Craven's Booby Trap Trilogy.

    Last House had the parents wire up the house to take out Krug and Company.

    Nightmare had Nancy taking down Freddy with some wires, explosives and a sledgehammer.

    And then here, the entire house itself becomes a trap.

    Social messages aside, I thought this brought out another angle in the film.

    I was a HUGE Twin Peaks fan when this film came out (still am), but I know the casting of Everett and Wendy made the film a hard sell for many when it came out.

    It seemed like a gimmick and it was, but the casting works--and that's what counts.

  4. I too am a huge Twin Peaks fan. People who don’t know the show are missing out on the novelty factor in a big way. It’s interesting that although they’re cast together, Wendy Robie is playing to type, while Everett McGill is playing way against type.

    Yes the movie’s metaphor is bludgeon-to-the-head obvious, so much so that it’s at the expense of the narrative. The movie tips its hand too soon. In the first few minutes, it establishes Mommy and Daddy as the evil landlords and has them acting all evil. In their next scene, still early in the first act, we see them being cruel to Alice and it’s established there are scary monsters also living in the house’s secret places. It all would have been much more suspenseful if we’d stayed with Fool’s POV the whole time. This could have built up the mystery of what’s in the house. Once inside, he encounters a seemingly ordinary couple. Except they’re cruel to their daughter, and wait, something’s hiding inside the walls etc. Instead of letting the weirdness build and build throughout the course of the film, Craven dumps it on us all at once.

    Did I hear this right? Ving Rhames said he knows where the house is because he found a "treasure map?" Are we to take that literally? Is he a Goonie?

    I wonder why A.J. Langer never became a superstar. I imagine somewhere there’s a parallel universe where she went on to have Natalie Portman’s career.

  5. I just watched this for the first time for Scary Movie Club, and while Ill be the first to Say "They know what they're doing".....what are you doing here?

    I didn't really like this movie. Maybe it was because of how much time has passed and Im not looking at it through an early 90s lens, but the inconsistencies in it just stood out so much that I struggled to put them aside to see what was being attempted

    Nearly everyone seemed to be in a different movie
    Alice was in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1
    Mommy was in Friday the 13th (1)
    Daddy was in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
    Fool was in Goonies/Home Alone
    "The Community" were in a bad TV rip off of a Spike Lee movie.
    The People Under The Stairs were ..... fuck knows.

    So the movie goes from very full on gore (Daddy carving out the guts from a body hung upside down) to Fool learning valuable lessons of life and responsibility while narrating his internal dialogue through cute one line clich├ęs.

    The social commentary may have been one aspect that was significant in 91, but now looking back it hasn't dated very well. Basically, I see it as a rich white guy (Craven) saying "Ok, yeah I know you are oppressed but its not me you should be angry with, its those "other" white people. The evil ones. Im a good guy. See....Yo be trippin? (did I say that right Tyrone?)"

    Ultimately there was not enough working for it to over ride all its flaws. And, like I said, a lot could be put down to it being "of its time" but at the moment Im more inclined to say that the passage of time has allowed a clearer perspective, not a clouded one.

    My favourite part though was Alice. She gave the best performance and seemed to be responding to her situations realistically, unlike.....everyone else.

    1. I knew that not everyone would like it. It wasn't chosen because it's great; it was chosen because it's interesting, not just in what it tries to say (obvious as it may be) but in the way that it's said. It is a mess -- a movie of only rough edges. But I can't think of another horror movie like it. So while you didn't really like it, can't you say you're at least glad to have seen it? If only as a time capsule, or another look into what makes Wes Craven tick as a filmmaker? Those are the reasons it was picked, if that makes sense.

    2. Oh for sure, im in the same camp as you in terms of it always being better to have seen something than to not have seen it. So, I can definitely say Im glad I watched it, and the fact that I have a strong opinion about it means it must have effected me in some way (as in I didn't just zone out from boredom, which I most certainly can do). So, thank you.

      When I think of this movie in comparison to The Collector ( a movie seen in this years SMM which I think I hate) then I can praise TPUTS for having a point and direction, unlike the Collector. My issue with the social commentary wasnt that it was attempted, because that should ALWAYS be encouraged, but in how it came across as being so completely tone deaf and stereotype driven which to me just negates the racial aspect of the message and results in it being more racist than racial.
      Now this may be a 90s thing, pre-full-bore PC era, sign of the times, so Im not saying that Craven is a secret racist or anything, I just think that this is part of what has dated very poorly.

      At the end of the day my biggest issue was the tonal inconsistencies between Fool and Mommy/Alice, so Fool's actions and reactions don't always make sense, and I was far more interested in Alice's plight than Fool's journey.

      I will need to see more Craven before I can see how it comments on him overall. At this stage (Elm, TPUTS, Scream) I think he really sees suburban houses as scary places....what happened in his house as a child, hmmm.
      But seriously, thanks for picking this.

  6. I haven't seen this in years. I appreciate Craven's attempt to add social critique of Reagan's America in the 80s to a plot that would be at home with the exploitation of the 70s. It definitely isn't subtle, nor does it try to be.

    I like Everett and Robie's performances, especially Robie's. It freaked me out as a kid and it STILL freaks me out. Brandon Adams and A.J. Langer are good as well. The "People" under the stairs are more a symbol than actual character. I wanted more distinguishing between them. I wish there was more of Roach, too.

    Thoughts on the "Do the Right Thing" rap song at the end?Kind of got a "T-U-R-T-L-E Power!" vibe, no?

  7. The social and racial politics of the film are interesting, if muddled. I'm sure Craven was drawn to the basic idea of a black kid from the ghetto taking down the evil rich. The "People" at one point appear to be paralleled with the ghetto denizens - there's a scene early on where Fool has to run a gauntlet of drug users on the stairs to get to his apartment. The underlying message appears to be that the rich stuff the poor into a terrible environment, which leads to depraved behavior (drug use in one setting, cannibalism in another).

    I wonder if at some point, either Craven or the studio became uncomfortable with the racial aspect. The crowd that shows up at the end to confront the evil rich looks completely different from the ghetto residents earlier depicted - in fact, they all look like they were shipped in from the suburbs. There are more than a few white faces in the crowd as well (of course there would have to be - the idea being that mommy and daddy have been kidnapping white children from the underclass for years). It appears to be an attempt by Craven to defuse any accusations of reverse racism.

  8. The movie could almost end at any time because it has such a flimsy narrative structure but I think that works to its advantage. I love the haunted house design. It looks like a lot of imagination went into all those trap doors, secret hallways etc. I also really like the over-the-top nature of the movie too. The movie is a lot of fun even if it doesn't succeed in making its economic/race commentary with much subtlety.

  9. The Netflix summary calls this an updated fairy tale, and it works much better through that lens. Could be because I watched TPUTS the same day as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, but the over-the-top acting and flat characters fits into a fairy tale motif. Craven isn't trying to make a believable story. He's making a parable—not a story form known for its subtlety. Some might say the haves v. have-nots theme is outdated, but I'd argue it's more topical than ever. The roller coaster haunted house and gun-totin' leather clad nutjob is just icing on the cake.

    1. If a Netflix summary told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it? Because I just did. Can you pick me up? I'm at the bottom of a cliff!

    2. I would, but I sold my hair to buy you this watch chain! TWIST!!!

  10. So the theme I thought I saw developing with the first two movies for the SMMMC and the upcoming The Woman seems to loosely hold true with The People Under the Stairs and that is all four movies prominently feature women who have lost control - or more accurately, had it taken from them. Now was that an intentionally unifying theme or (and this rather obvious thought is just occurring to me) is that just what so many horror movies are at least partially about that you'd have to go out of your way for them NOT to have that in common?