Eager for something on the verge of the modern horror era, the film that I decided to watch today is Wes Craven's People Under The Stairs a 1991 horror movie intended to explore the question of what exactly goes on in that creepy house across the street that kids don't like to walk past. It's a novel idea, and one of the films that paints the character of the home invaders as the sort-of good guys. Thanks to a formatting muck up, I managed to lose all of the notes I took on this film and am relying purely on memory for this typed up review. So let's not waste any more time and go meet The People Under The Stairs.
Our film open on a tarot card as a boy is getting his fortune told by his sister, Ruby, on his thirteenth birthday. She discusses the merits of The Fool, the first card in the Tarot and this kid's chosen sigil. The fool is young and reckless, usually unaware of what dangers lie around him and reliant on luck or the help of others. He can either lose himself to his naivete until it leads to disaster, or change his course and travel through adversity, burning away the boy until only the man remains. It's a decent intro to the character that we'll be following around the rest of the movie and some nice foreshadowing, although it brings in a theme of mysticism that we do not see repeated or touched upon again for the rest of the movie.
The film opens for real on Poindexter, but that name is actually more embarrassing than the nickname “Fool”, so everyone calls him that. His family is in rough shape, considering that his mother can't work because she has Movie Cancer, her sister can barely hold down a job in the nonspecific ghetto that they live in, and Ving Rhames is just sort of chilling about the place. They missed their rent payment by a week, which means that the price has tripled and they are going to be evicted pretty soon, so the folks need cash fast.
If you're wondering what kind of sadistic loon would actually institute such ludicrous rent policies, the answer is given in the next scene with a stiffly dressed couple dining in their living room as their daughter ferries dishes to and from the room. The patriarch is actively eating what looks like half a deer while spitting out buckshot, and the mother is stitching a dress while loudly extolling the virtues of their plan to drive up the rent of the local buildings that they own and evict all of the residents, knocking down the place so that they can build condominiums full of “Nice, clean people”. She also scolds her daughter for speaking out of turn.
I'm pretty sure this is what a given left-winger thinks Republicans live like.
These people, who I'm just gonna call the Trumps, are clearly emotionally abusing their daughter. She eats alone in her room until the mother comes upstairs to collect her plate, finding that a fork is missing. The daughter tries to find it, only to have a clawed hand poke out of a vent to give it to her. It's a neat and pretty spooky reveal that this poor girl might have some sort of odd, ghost ally or something. The Mother almost immediately calls her on it, believing that her daughter has been feeding “That thing in the walls”. So they know about it? Jesus, these people seem more and more like distant cousins of The Addams Family that Gomez and Morticia don't like inviting over to family reunions. The Father strolls in, the first words out of his mouth being: “Some n**gers robbed the store”.
Well fine thanks, how are you?
Momma just sort of throws the misbehaving daughter to an irate Father and leaves her to be physically abused, heading off downstairs.
The next day, Fool returns through the ghetto hellscape he calls home and has no answers about what to do for money. Ving Rhames speaks up, and I have no idea what exactly his relation is to this mother and her children. Is he like a stepdad or something? Just a dude who they let hang around because he brings the good weed? In any case, Rhames brings the idea of grand larceny to the table, saying that he has found out where the building's landlords actually live. He tells Fool that he wants him in on the operation, stating that the owners are rumoured to have an antique gold coin collection, offering to pay him a share of the bounty that could cover his mother's medical expenses. He is initially unwilling, but soon says yes, realizing that he doesn't have many other options. Also, Ving's character Leeroy is a borderline abusive, manipulative ass hole that will almost inevitably end up betraying Fool, but I still kinda like him. He's spunky.
Leeroy shows up at the house the following day, dressed as a boy scout and looking to recon the place a little bit. Man, if you're looking to buy your way in with the promise of cookies, then you're in the wrong outfit. Slap on a dress and call yourself Patty, and those two will invite you anywhere. My point is proven when the Mother doesn't so much as let him in the front door, and Fool reports back to the others, noting the heavy metal mesh over all of the windows, which strangely have the padlocks on the OUTside. The third man, Spencer decides that Plan B will be him heading up to the door as a utility man, and if that doesn't work, they have a wide array of fake moustaches to cycle through. This Silent Bob/Kevin Pollok looking dude manages to talk his way inside while posing as a gas man here to check their meter, but it's obvious that Mother has sniffed him out by the skull ring he's wearing. No self respecting civic servant would EVER be cool enough to wear a sickass skeleton ring.
Mother leaves soon after and Leeroy gets nervous, thinking that Spencer might be trying to make off with all of the loot when they don't hear back from him. He grabs Fool and pries his way inside with a crowbar, making their way into a dusty, neglected greenhouse. The doors to the actual house are thick and iron clad, but Leeroy manages to break inside, just as a rottweiler charges out and bowls him over. Quick thinking lets fool trick the doggo into the greenhouse and the two barricade the door behind themselves. Now fully inside, the two scope the creepy looking place out, Fool fitting in a little bit of social commentary as he notes that the living room of this place alone could fit ten families. The kid is naturally cagey about all of this, so Leeroy tells him to stay on lookout while he checks upstairs. Fool remains at his post for about ten seconds before investigating a noise coming from the basement, spotting Spencers clipboard on the stairwell. Wow kid, you mentioned you wanted to be a doctor one day? To his credit, he pauses halfway after seeing a mysterious shadow flitting downstairs and openly declares that he isn't THAT stupid, but then turns back AGAIN when he feels the influence of criminal peer pressure. His adventure into the basement goes as well as you would expect, with odd shadows skulking around just out of sight. He gets spooked by some odd lights that seem to be following him and actually trips over Spencer's corpse. Whatever killed him seemed to have rubbed some flour into his hair as well, unless he looked into the Ark of the Covenant or something, but he is gripping a golden coin in his hand,
confirming the existence of the treasure. Something beyond a boarded-up section of the basement tries to actually EAT Spencer's body and Fool decides it's time to beat it. He gets briefly tackled by some gangly dude with a saw on his back, but shakes him off and sprints upstairs until he accidentally triggers a booby trapped staircase, sliding back down to the bottom...then sprinting right back up that shit, because screw your booby traps, I did that all the time in grade school.
He makes it upstairs just as the couple pulls into the driveway. Fool sprints upstairs, calling for Leeroy. They find each other just as the couple (who are entering through the back door for some reason) realize that the way in has been barricaded. An attempt to flee out the front door turns out to be fruitless when the handle to the front door is electrified, leaving Fool and Leeroy trapped. They manage to force a hole open for their dog, and Leeroy actually tries to use Fool as bait to lure the animal out into the open. This doesn't pan out and Leeroy ends up getting jumped again. Funnily, that dog always seems eager to latch on to the same arm, but I never see an ounce of blood on his jacket. Fool grabs a hold of Leeroy and the door handle, conducting electricity through both of them and zapping the pooch (Um, yeah, no) and they flee upstairs. By now Daddy has kicked open the door downstairs and hit the security switches, plunging the house into darkness and throwing down shutters on all the doors and windows. Being big and loud, it doesn't take long for Ving to be sniffed out by a gun-wielding Daddy and shot full of holes. He even almost gives away the fact that there was a third man involved by screaming at Fool to run, but fortunately, Daddy just thinks he was calling him names. Thinking that there is someone else in the walls, Daddy charges out and-
HOLY HELL, did he get his hunting gear on. It looks like The Gimp is back for revenge, or Daddy is taking his name very seriously.
This single change of clothing really cements the fact that Fool clearly has NO idea who he was fucking with and is deeply in over his head. Now alone in a locked down house full of fervent 2nd Amendment supporters and a basement full of ghouls, Fool is running out of options. The dog, Prince, comes back and pursues Fool again, forcing him to hole up in a bathroom where he meets the daughter. Her name is Alice and she explains a few things. Namely about how this kid is basically toast, and what exactly the people in the basement are. It seems that these two have been kidnapping children from the local neighbourhoods for quite some time, looking for a boy child that they can raise as their own. One by one, each kid has failed their standards in some way, causing Daddy to “Cut out the bad bits” and lock them in the basement, implying mutilation and possible lobotomy. Occasionally they find food or flashlights to keep themselves entertained, but it's clear that whatever is downstairs is not the primary evil here. Alice mentions Roach, the one that got away and has been living in the walls ever since. Oh, so that's her friend.
Meanwhile outside, the cops drop by investigating the abandoned van that Mother and Father claim to know nothing about, Daddy having squeezed out of his playsuit. The police officer wanders off, but the couple finds Fool's boyscout uniform in the back of the van, realizing that he's a part of this and probably still in the house. Daddy doesn't waste any time sicking Prince on the intruder, who corners Fool in the bathroom. Despite putting up a decent fight, the kid is clearly outmatched and in serious trouble until Roach yanks him into the walls through a secret door. I frankly love the idea that this kid has been hiding in here for months, stealing supplies and fucking with the two psychopaths who live in the main house.
“Oh, that's Roach, he escaped into the walls and has been there ever since.” grabs broom
Roach manages to get rid of Prince via a Super Happy Fun Slide of his very own. (Did he build it? Or maybe the couple did in order to catch him. I'd just pump the crawlspace full of gas, like pesticide or something.) After getting a few holes blown in the walls behind them, the duo finally gets into Alice's room. She explains that Roach was another one of the kids that the Trumps grabbed, this one getting his tongue cut out for speaking out of turn. This exposition gets quickly interrupted when Daddy bursts in. Roach gets away, but Fool is caught.
The scenes of Alice being abused and tortured by her family are arguably the most disturbing scenes in the film, such as when she in thrown downstairs to clean Leeroy's blood off the floor, berated for getting blood on her dress and forced to bath in scalding hot water. It's pretty rough stuff and hard to watch, especially with the verbal abuse being screamed at her the whole time by Mommy. Meanwhile down in the basement, a chained up Fool is forced to watch Leeroy's corpse being butchered by Daddy, his meat being thrown to the cellar boys. Daddy decides to toss Fool in with them and leaves.
Fool wards off the flashlight wielding mob of quasi-morlocks in a way reminiscent of the average person stumbling in on a Role Playing Game group, until Roach gets there, scaring off the others by puppeting Leeroy's bloody corpse and freeing Fool, escaping into the furnace with him.
Dang, can't this guy be the main character? Roach opens a way for Fool, but in the process reveals that he was badly wounded by Daddy's shotgun. As he bleeds out, Roach gives his friend a small packet of gold coins that he managed to make off with and draws Alice's name on the wall in soot, making him promise to save the girl before he dies. Fool wriggles up to Alice's room and nabs her, punching Daddy right in the dick along the way, then it's back into the crawlspace. Their only advantage on these two gun-toting loons is their small stature allowing them to slip through the vents and in-between the walls, making for some tense, claustrophobic moments. They dodge an honest-to-god sliding spike wall and Prince gets loosed after them again, but Fool finally says that he's DONE running. Which is a nice sentiment to hold, but hard to put into practice when you are a 75-pound prepubescent teenager being chased by a bloodthirsty Rottweiler. He is immediately knocked over, but purposefully makes as much noise as possible to goad Daddy into stabbing the wall with his bayonet, impaling the dog. Gotta say, there was a lot of room for error in this plan. Also, I'm one of those people who consider the death of ANY dog to be tragic in a movie, but even I thought Daddy's excited juvenile dancing when he thought he had tagged the boy, followed by his soft “Aw, fuck” when he finds his dog's body was pretty funny.Fool and Alice get up into the attic, and Fool finally gets to an open window, planning to slide down the roof and into the pond he saw on his way in. Alice hesitates, having never been outside, and they run out of time as Daddy barges in. Fool makes the jump and escapes, mounting the fence and disappearing into the night.
Back home and recovering from the ideal, Fool brings the coins back to his Wise Black Man, who imparts that their age and rarity will more than pay for their rent for the next decade, as well as fund their mothers medical bills. Damn, those are some good coins right there. They even cure cancer, as there doesn't seem to be any doubt that Fool's mom will be a-okay once they send her to the hospital. Wise Black Man explains what's up with the Trumps: They aren't husband and wife, but actually brother and sister, the latest in a long, incestuous line of robber barons that started out in the funeral home trade but moved into real estate, having grown, richer, greedier and crazier over the generations while holed up in their trap-laden mansion. I already pulled the trigger on my Trump joke, but given the time period this movie came from, I think it's obvious that these two were a knock against the Reagans. I imagine that once you get your fourth generation of inbred offspring, anything you try to make with your own genitals will end up looking like a failed teleporter experiment, so Mommy and Daddy have taken to kidnapping kids, including Alice. I gotta say, for a girl that was raised by these two, she is remarkably well adjusted if only a little shy. Fool realizes that something needs to be done about these two, and proceeds to head out and heroically...call the cops on them. That's actually pretty well thought out.
The police and two social workers pop into the place, responding to a report of child abuse. I may not have mentioned it before, but the Trumps absolutely make this movie with their incredibly over the top acting and hammy performances, especially on the part of Daddy. The way they both roar garbled bible quotes at their pray or awkwardly dance around after killing someone is darkly hilarious and over the top to be simultaneously disturbing and captivating. Here though, both of them actually have to act normal as the police poke around, Mommy even serving them cookies and Daddy going so far as to smoke a pipe and wear a hat to hide his head wound from where Fool nailed him with a toilet lid earlier in the film. They manage to convince the social worker that they DID have a daughter, but that she died years ago and that they haven't gotten around to redecorating her old room. I have to say, I'm not all that familiar with social worker protocol, but these two don't seem to be doing a very good job of backing all of this up in any way. Maybe it's just another nudge from Craven that as a pair of rich, white people, the Trumps are clearly above any immediate suspicion. The cops leave and we are treated to another bit of black comedy as the two swing back the false wall they were hiding the staircase to the basement behind, bemoan the absolute fiasco that the day has been and trudge off to bed casually mentioning that they'll have to clear the bodies out of the cellar, get a new dog and maybe even kill their daughter while they're at it.
It turns out that the cop call was all a ruse for Fool to slip in through the back, as he grabs a fire poker and sneaks upstairs to the Trump's room while they are conducting their nightly prayers. He tries to get the drop on them, but it turns out to be a trap as Daddy lunges out at him, back in his Gimp Suit. Now I'm not speaking from experience (Honest) but Daddy is really wriggling in and out of this thing very quickly, and I'm sure as hell that all of that buckled up leather is pretty damn hard to get on or off in a hurry. He grabs Fool, who quickly gouges at his eyes and kneecaps an irate Mommy, breaking the fire poker over Daddy's back. He escapes back into the walls, climbing up the chimney to find Alice chained up in the attic. He manages to knock her free and avoid a questing Daddy, both of them meeting up on the roof. The pond is no longer a viable escape route, having been drained and filled with broken glass, so the two still need a way out. Alice still expresses misgivings about rebelling against her parents, having lived under their thumb for so long and only surviving by complying to their every demand. As soon as Fool tells her that she was a stolen child, you can see the darkness enter her eyes and steel cross her face. Now she's pissed off.
They make enough noise to get Daddy to stick his face into the chimney, where they promptly drop a brick on his head and barrel into Mommy, causing them to drop the shotgun. The cat and mouse games continue, with Alice trying to find a way out through the furnace vents and Fool confronting Daddy in the basement, who gets the drop on him via Super Happy Fun Slide and nearly blows his head off before being interrupted by a knock at the door. Fearing the cops, Daddy avoids pulling the trigger just yet, but Mommy opens the door to find Ruby, dressed in professional wear and claiming to be there seeking legal action again the Trumps for their unscrupulous real estate policies. Fool manages to use this distraction to seek refuge inside the holding pen with the Cellar People, who are now unequivocally on his side now.
Ruby comes back minute later with an angry mob of the entire ghetto community that the Trumps have screwed over. Mommy looks like she's about to open fire on the lot of them until Alice drops out of the ceiling vent like freaking Batman and knocks her unconscious, tripping the security system and sending all of the doors flying open. Their victory is short lived when Mommy comes to and somehow disappears out from under the nose of an entire crowd, sealing off the house and overriding the console in the front hall. Daddy hunts Fool downstairs, just as he is directed past a security system and into the building's old embalming room by one of the cellar people. The place has been converted into a vault of Scrooge McDuck proportions, with piles of paper money and gold coins lying about the place. Fool even nails the satire of this home by remarking “No wonder there's no money in the ghetto”. I have to ponder the practicality of keeping the door to your vault inside the holding pen for all of the roving cannibals that you have crippled and driven insane, who just maybe carry a grudge against you for all of that. Even if they don't try to eat you, then any one of them might just wander inside and start a fire or something, security system or no. The hits of this poorly thought out repository just keep on coming as Fool finds a bunch of dynamite there, underneath a stack of deeds. The noise attracts Daddy, who charges inside, shotgun at the ready.
Meanwhile upstairs, Alice confronts Mommy in the kitchen, telling her to her face that she is not her mother. Just as she is about to get knifed, one of the freed Cellar Boys takes the title of this movie to it's logical extreme, bursting out of the staircase and defending Alice. More and more of her mutilated “brothers” burst out of the walls and grates like the friendliest zombies of all, and I gotta say, it's just plain cool. Finally Alice stabs her captor, who is briefly menaced by what look like a few of Slipknot's back up dancers before she is mobbed and torn apart.
Downstairs, Fool manages to distract Daddy with a frankly ingenious time-release noise maker created by sticking coins into a slowly melted candle, and gets behind him, telling him point blank that he will detonate the dynamite in the vault by completing the security alarm's circuit unless Daddy drops his gun.
Daddy does not comply, so Fool acts on his threat. The resulting explosion carries through the house, somehow harming nobody but Daddy himself. I guess it was pretty old. Even the money is fine, getting blown throughout the house and up the chimney, raining down on the assembled ghetto townsfolk outside.
Alice and Fool sit down in the basement, the ordeal finally over as the Cellar people venture outside. Oh good, I don't see anything bad coming from a bunch of mentally and physically crippled morlocks venturing out into world they know next to nothing about after being forced to eat nothing but human flesh for their entire adult lives.
The People Under The Stairs is definitely an odd film, playing out in many ways like a reverse-Home Alone, with the home invader being a kid stuck in a trap-laden house by two criminals, except everyone in this house is playing for keeps. You also might have noticed a couple of sizable similarities between this film and another one that I reviewed earlier in the month: Locked inside of a killers house, a robbery gone wrong, sympathetic protagonists brought into crime due to crappy living conditions, a horrible secret in the basement, being pursued between the walls by a dog....
Yeah, I'm not sure if it's homage, a rip off or just coincidence, but Don't Breathe has a hell of a lot in common with this movie that came out over twenty years earlier. Between the two films, I have to say that Don't Breathe had an overall better execution, being more exhilarating, scary and with better performances, especially on the part of Lang as The Blind Man. But this film clearly wasn't trying to be as freaky, with the actions of the main antagonists being incredibly fun to watch, save the abuse of their daughter, and a much lighter overall tone, interlaced with some pretty clever Boys in Da Hood-style social commentary on real estate and ghetto life that gives the film a decade relevant tone, which can be said of a lot of Wes Craven's work. I still think that Scream is one of those perfect little time capsules of the 90's. I would say that both films have their strengths and are good for a watch, so I can definitely recommend The People Under The Stairs if you feel like venturing there.