Thursday, May 16, 2019

Revisiting The People Under the Stairs

In every neighborhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid.” I had a chance to visit such a house, actually—the house that was featured in the film this tagline is from.

After reveling in the aura of this Californian home, I flew back to Florida and immediately pressed play on my dvd version of The People Under the Stairs. Directed and written by Wes Craven, this 1991 film forever turned basements into potential torture chambers for me. It is said that this story was inspired by real-life events in which authorities were called to a burglarized home. Although the burglars were never found, authorities did find children that had been locked up in rooms by their parents, forbidden from ever leaving the home.

In Craven’s twist, character Grandpa Booker explains that “the family started out as a family running a funeral home, selling cheap coffins for expensive prices. Then they got their fingers into real estate, started making a lot of money taking over people's homes. The more money they got, the greedier they got. The greedier they got, the crazier they got. All sorts of rumors about what's going on in that place. Never proved it because the police never took it serious. But believe me, when I was a kid, none of us ever walked past that house.”

In The People Under the Stairs, this family’s real estate schemes affect numerous tenants. We meet a 13-year-old boy named Fool, who lives in the ghetto with his sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) and their ailing mother. With the family behind in bills and the threat of a social worker coming to split the family up, Fool takes an interest in family friend Leroy’s (Ving Rhames) plan to rob the corrupt landlords. However, the plan goes awry when the attempted burglary leaves Fool trapped inside the labyrinthine suburban home, where he discovers other children enslaved under the stairs.

Although the story required only a few settings, the idea of this menacing family hiding in plain sight enabled the film to feel much larger. Viewers could easily see that the house took up a significant portion of the $6 million dollar budget. With its traps, complex layout, antiquated wallpaper, and ample padlocks on “both” sides of doors, Fool and the viewer yearned for the much grander and less lethal life outside this house.

Alongside the set design, the special effects makeup excelled, even by today’s standards. But seeing them in 1991 forced me to hide under my mother’s shirt, especially witnessing humans who had been neglected of sunlight for so long. KNB Efx Group founders Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger served as special effects makeup supervisors. Nicotero has gone on to work on Preacher, The Hateful Eight, and the upcoming Spawn. Berger has been attached to The Walking Dead, Legion, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

For The People Under the Stairs, the ultimate treasure lies in the dialogue that shines as nuggets of life lessons. For example, Leroy says, “Just because a man's lying down doesn't mean he's dead!” There was something poetic in many parts—and fun as well. The woman, played by Wendy Robie, after dealing with a cop and a boy selling cookies says, “I don't want to see another cop or cookie in my life. I don't know which one makes me sicker.” How a person can compare cops to cookies still baffles me.

Wes Craven chose Wendy Robie and Everett McGill to play the parts of Mom and Dad after watching their husband and wife performance in the 1990 television series Twin Peaks. The rest of the casting was aided by Eileen Mack Knight, who rejoined Craven for 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn (Eddie Murphy, Kadeem Hardison).

I thank Craven for a wonderful and wild horror film that featured the struggles that lower-income families face. To include what people are willing to do for money, even when faced with horrific circumstances, heightened the danger and made the motivation very real in the early 90s. Articles have stated that before his passing, Wes Craven was developing a television show version of this film for the SyFy Channel. I would have loved for this to be a reality, and I hope that SyFy can still find a way to make this happen.

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