Schlocktoberfest #27: The People Under the Stairs
Wes Craven does it again, with a horrific fairy tale set in the ghetto. A young black kid named “Fool” lives in a slumlord’s tenement, where his mom is dying of cancer; they don’t have money for her treatment or the rent for that matter. The building is falling apart and the landlord won’t do anything, and keeps raising the rent so he can evict everyone. Friend of the family Leroy (Ving Rhames) tells Fool that he knows where the slumlord lives; he runs the liquor store, and his creepy old house is rumored to have a treasure of gold coins. He talks Fool into coming to help him and his buddy Spenser to break in and steal it, and they head over to the creepiest house in the ‘hood…
Fool (Brandon Adams) is a smart and likeable kid who acts naturally and makes the film. He’s believable in the part, though his ’90s fade is sort of funny today. He’s mirrored by young Alice, a sheltered little white girl who lives under the cruel discipline of “Mom” and “Dad” the evil slumlords (played with relish by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie from “Twin Peaks”). Hers is a tragic life spent locked in her room. When Mom comes to make sure she ate her dinner, she discovers the fork is missing, and promises severe punishment; only we get to see a pale, clawed hand pass her the fork through a heating grate, and it’s our first hint at the bizarre goings-on at the house.
Spenser poses as a meter reader and uses his wiles to get inside, but Leroy & Fool head in after him when he takes too long. Soon their worst fears are realized; there’s not just a rottweiler to keep people OUT, but a steel door, locks, traps and contraptions meant to keep people IN! To escape the fangs of the guard dog and the bloodthirsty “Dad”‘s shotgun, they escape into the basement and the very walls themselves, where they meet… the people under the stairs. Soon, Fool is all alone and has to live by his wits, with two murderous crazy white folk after his ass, and a basement full of creepies hungry for human flesh.
The hand we saw earlier belongs to Roach, the only denizen of the hell house who can move from the basement cages that Mom & Dad keep kidnapped children in. Alice alone is allowed to live among them, for she hasn’t “spoken evil”… yet. Fool finds her and they team together to find the evil slumlords and free the children, but their road is long and bloody. Can Fool find the gold and save his mom? Can Alice escape their clutches and live like a normal child? Will the neighborhood survive their cruel plan to evict everyone and tear the buildings down?
The People Under the Stairs was missed by me because while it is horror, it is more of a kid movie, like The Gate. Certainly scarier than stuff like Monster Squad, but kids love scary stuff and this is so campy that you’re never really horrified by it. There’s cartoonish violence as Dad blows the walls up with his shotgun whilst running around in his Gimp suit, but I doubt any 12 year old is gonna get nightmares. Besides, it’s always fun seeing the kids fight back, and this is nothing more than a Hansel and Gretel for the ’90s.
Wes Craven jumped from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise to this endearing horror fairy tale and made an instant, if minor classic. “Fool” is no fool, and even the thieving Leroy isn’t that bad a role model- he wants to fight back against evil. Grandpa Booker (played by the excellent Bill Cobbs, of The Brother from Another Planet and Night at the Museum) shows up later, but keeps the movie from being a ‘hood parody, giving us real and likeable characters in a ridiculous but fitting allegory for the slumlord atrocities of the ’80s. Give your inner child a treat and watch this sometime. When you’re too old for Labyrinth and Monster Squad, there’s The Gate, and The People Under the Stairs.