Genre has always been looked down upon by the establishment, science fiction a ghetto occupied by fanciful writers of whimsy, horror regarded as lower still, lurid and base, an indulgent and perverse flaunting of the rules of polite society. Only within the last few decades has the relevance of science fiction begun to be recognised and accepted – an Oscar nomination for Sigourney Weaver for Aliens in 1986, Golden Globes for both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson for The X Files in 1996 – but horror, possibly proudly, has retained its pariah status, yet is arguably equally important, the peeling back of the veneer of civilisation as much as of flesh to examine the truth beneath.
The name Wes Craven is invariably linked with his most famous creation, Freddy Krueger, cause of nocturnal frights since 1984, yet he had already written and directed two defining works of the previous decade, The Last House on the Left in 1972 and The Hills Have Eyes in 1977, both of which have been remade within the last decade along with A Nightmare on Elm Street itself.
After those early features, in a trend which continued into the Scream films in the nineties, along with contemporaries such as George Romero and John Carpenter, the work of Craven since his early features has been primarily suburban, focused on the underlying divisions in those supposedly safe modern streets, the resentments which fester beneath the sun dappled front lawns, the prejudice behind the perfect smiles.
Freddy Krueger was the outsider, his childhood marred by abuse at the hands of his alcoholic stepfather, his own life spiralling into violence and murder before the vigilante denizens of Springwood burned him alive, while Sidney Prescott was hunted and haunted by several of her teenage peers masquerading as Ghostface, first seeking revenge upon her family for that most middle class of sins, the extra marital affair, then later hoping the notoriety associated with murder would bring them that vulgar currency of the idle wealthy, fame.
It was in his tenth film, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, now released on Blu-ray for the first time, where Craven most specifically and directly addressed the double standards and hypocrisy of suburbia, contrasting the poverty of a family about to be evicted from their apartment in the Los Angeles ghetto with the lifestyle of the landlords, the sinister Robeson family in their mansion across the city.
Unlike his peers, Craven presaged the current trend of featuring lead actors in their late teens or early twenties (see also Deadly Friend, Cursed and Red Eye), but here they were younger still.
Poindexter Williams (thirteen year old Brandon Adams), known as Fool to his friends, lives with elder sister Ruby (The Lost Boys’ Kelly Jo Minter) and their sickly mother, unable to afford the rent, and served notice of eviction at midnight the following night. The situation is inescapable: “Your mama got a cancer in her she can’t afford to have the doctor cut out,” they are told by small time crook Leroy (a young Ving Rhames foreshadowing the heavy roles for which he is known while also demonstrating warmth towards Fool), pointing out how a mutual friend is “in jail for trying to put food on the table.”
In order to raise money fast, Fool agrees to help Leroy and his partner Spenser (Jeremy Roberts, best known as Dimitri Valtane of the USS Excelsior under the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu) who wish to break into the Robeson’s house, believing they will find a fortune in gold inside, allowing them all to escape the slums and drug dens.
Posing as a Boy Scout to gain access, Fool is turned away by Mrs Robeson, but dressed as a gasman, Spenser fares better but fails to return from his mission. Leroy and Fool break in, believing Spenser may have found the gold and kept it for himself; instead, Fool finds his body in the basement. “You thought he was white before? You should see that sucker now.”
Trapped in the house when the Robesons return, Leroy is shot but Fool evades capture and finds unexpected allies in sixteen year old Alice, who believes herself to be the daughter of the Robsesons, and her secret friend Roach, the mute boy who hides in the crawlspaces of the house. Alice takes Fool through the looking glass to the world behind the walls, and so begins a game of cat and mouse through the house, the attic and the basement as the trio attempt to avoid the booby traps and reach freedom.
While not in any way a haunted house film, as with that tradition the setting is crucial to the storytelling, and the labyrinthine set is encompassing, the teenagers trapped in plasterboard passages as Daddy Robeson hunts them with guns, knives and his fierce dog Prince. The public rooms of the mansion are richly decorated and beautifully furnished, stark contrast to the rough boards and bare wiring behind the walls, all showcased in this immaculately restored print.
Adding to the realism of the film is that all the effects work is practical; where a current horror film would have digital effects for the traps within the house, for example the staircase which collapses into a slide into the dungeon, here everything was achieved on set. Horror is only effective when it is real, a lesson many filmmakers ignore or never learned in the first place.
More tongue in cheek than some of Craven’s better known works, some scenes border on slapstick – Roach hitting Daddy Robeson with the catapult, falling down the chimney on Mrs Robeson – making it almost a not-for-kids Home Alone in reverse, and the lure of treasure should the challenges be overcome hints at a more murderous and incestuous cousin to The Goonies, and in many ways the film is actually closer to the work of Joe Dante than Wes Craven.
Any horror is only as good as the villains, and any failings the film has are compensated by Mommy and Daddy Robeson, Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, reunited following their husband and wife pairing as Ed and Nadine Hurley on Twin Peaks in apparently the same relationship, yet later revealed to be brother and sister.
In her floral print dresses, luscious lips and red hair piled atop her head, Robie is brilliant, beautiful and vicious, her domineering performance reminding of the power and control of Alice Krige; that her career did not soar after this showcase is a sign of how shortsighted Hollywood casting is in regard to mature women.
Matching her intensity is McGill’s grim Daddy Robeson, wild eyed and manic as he runs through the house in his studded gimp suit, then suddenly called to be the genteel man of the house when the police respond to reports of a disturbance, showing the house while concealing his wounds from the officers who include a young Joshua Cox, Babylon 5’s long suffering Lieutenant Corwin and John Mahon, later Detective Trevor Lockley on Angel.
While Brandon Adams is sometimes too cute for the role, giving the impression that he is perpetually using the role to audition for a sitcom, but given his age at the time of filming, his inexperience is forgivable. Nevertheless, Fool is an interesting character, a black child in a white adult world, intelligent and loyal but also resourceful; when cornered in the bathroom, unlike Shelley Duvall’s character in The Shining, he has the wit to use the cistern lid as a weapon.
Despite it being her first major role, A J Langer is excellent as Alice, sheltered from the world and terrorised yet knowing instinctively that the world she has been brought up in is wrong, sharing her meagre food with Roach, sewing dolls “to hold the souls of the people who died” and immediately connecting with Fool, despite the mismatch in the colours of their skin, it would never occur to her to see him as different.
Special mention must also go to Brutus, Bubba, Shultz and Zeke, the four dogs who portray Prince, champion performers all in a demanding and prominent role, performed with conviction and flair.
The heart of both the house and the film, however, is the people under the stairs and what has been stolen from them – their freedom, their voices, their wealth. “More money they got, the greedier they got, greedier they got, the crazier they got,” Fool’s grandfather tells him, and the film makes no apology for directly addressing the social issues of housing and healthcare nor from showing Fool, Leroy and Spenser to be decent people, certainly more human than the Robesons, driven to crime because no other option for balancing the desperate inequalities of their situation is open to them.
Unlike some horror of the period which has dated, these boldness has rendered the film even more relevant with passing time, and for all the violence and blood, the film is never so moving as when Fool reaches the roof of the house and says longingly, “You can see the lights of the ghetto from here.”
In addition to a commentary track with Brandon Adams, also included on the new release are several new interviews, the first with Wes Craven who discusses the origin of the story and how it grew through memories of his own childhood which he exaggerated, discussing the idea of the house, the basement and the attic as the consciousness, the subconscious and the alter ego.
Craven also reflects on his recurring use of the bathroom as a setting in his films, “the room where you can be yourself, naked, the room where you can lock the door on the world,” and how he sees The People Under The Stairs as part of a thematic trilogy alongside The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, examining the conflict between different ways of life.
Rounding out the package, both A J Langer and Sean Whalen speak with great affection of their memories of filming, her of her friendship with Wendy Robie which lasts to this day, “one of the most incredible personalities that I’ve met,” while Whalen, despite sharing no scenes with him, became friends with Ving Rhames.
Though both comment that neither were fans of horror, either then or now, both have special praise for Wes Craven, “nurturing” to Whalen and “a sweet, sweet man who is in touch with the darkness” in the words of Langer, and perhaps it is that generosity and kindness which has allowed him to isolate that darkness and focus it so successfully on celluloid for four decades.
The People Under the Stairs is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow