The late Wes Craven looms large as one of Hollywood’s most influential horror filmmakers, largely due to the one-two punch of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). During the period between his two most famous film, he also directed The People Under the Stairs. It is a surprising work in many respects: aggressively satirical, unexpectedly funny, and in many places just simply rather odd.
Dexter Williams (Brandon Adams), nicknamed “Fool”, is an African-American boy with a cancer-stricken mother living in a run-down city apartment. His family is about to get evicted, and to try and get the money for back-rent, Fool agrees to help local criminal Leroy (Ving Rhames) in robbing their landlords’ enormous house in the suburbs. Once inside the house, however, their plans run awry: Leroy is shot dead by one of the owners, leaving Fool trapped inside.
The People Under the Stairs features rich white Americans preying on urban black communities. It showcases the immense evil of greed against the innate goodness of community and family. It does this via a pair of deranged killers (Twin Peaks’ Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) living out a fantasy life as a 1950s-styled “Mother” and “Father”, while keeping a group of tortured and mutilated young men in their basement. It could easily form a deeply disturbing film – except that Craven keeps puncturing the tension by making jokes about it.
Comedy has always formed an element of Craven’s horror work, but nowhere is it as foregrounded and accentuated as it is here. Freddy Krueger and the Ghostface Killer might both be as lethal, but neither is quite an unexpected or surreal as Everett McGill wearing a black leather gimp suit firing a shotgun wildly into the walls of his own home. It is an overwhelmingly absurd film, and to be honest that is likely why it never reached the commercial success of Craven’s better-known works. Lovers of comedy would have recoiled from the horror and never even checked it out. Lovers of horror likely reacted poorly to all of the silliness and dismissed the film out of hand. For the narrow cross-section of viewers that embrace both sides, it is a flawed delight.
Brandon Adams is a real gem of a lead, presenting a smart, level-headed kid doing his best to cope with his nightmarish situation. He shows off some properly solid acting here, surprisingly naturalistic and believable. Ving Rhames, in an early career role, only makes a brief appearance, but balances Adams’ work nicely. As the sadistic Mother and Father, Robie and McGill are pitch-perfect, playing their over-the-top roles in an appropriately exaggerated fashion. McGill in particular is fabulous, and in a role very unlike his other screen work.
The People Under the Stairs does not quite succeed in its intentions, but for such an off-kilter and original work it achieves a lot more than an audience might fairly expect. It stands out among Craven’s other works: a clever variation on his usual style, and a striking and original change to American horror cinema at the beginning of the 1990s. It is not his best work, but it is almost certainly his most under-rated.