Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week: Alex Pappademas on Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs.
In real life, the house where most of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs takes place is a three-story Craftsman-style mansion in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. When the neighborhood’s well-to-do white population began moving to the city’s west side in the early 1900s, West Adams became a haven for L.A.’s emerging black middle and upper class. Before it became a movie location and a protected historical site, the People Under the Stairs house — properly known as the Thomas W. Philips Residence — was the home of Gone With the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen. In 1945, when white homeowners tried to push the black population out of West Adams by demanding the enforcement of racially restrictive property-ownership covenants, McQueen’s neighbor and Oscar-winning costar Hattie McDaniel led the coalition that fought them in court and won.
This horror movie never alludes directly to the ways in which race and class-based conflict have shaped the city’s map as long as it’s been a city. It’s aiming for the universality of a fairy tale or an urban myth, and a stronger sense of place might have gotten in the way. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t count as an L.A. movie. Like Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Inherent Vice, Craven’s nightmare dreams up a fanciful backstory for the workaday cruelties of development and gentrification. Unlike those movies, The People Under the Stairs puts poor people of color — the segment of the population whose lives get bulldozed first when money terraforms a city — at the center of its story.
Fool (Brandon Adams), his sister and his ailing mother are about to be evicted unless they can produce money they don’t have. This means he’s ready to listen when his sister’s friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) comes to him with an idea. Leroy and his partner need Fool to create a diversion at the door so they can rip off a cache of gold coins — from the creepy old house of the same slumlord who’s about to put the kid’s family on the street. “This is the big one,” Leroy tells him. “Somebody deserves to be robbed.” He seems pretty confident, for someone in a movie with a huge skull on the poster.
The house turns out to be a former funeral parlor fortified to repel invaders from the ‘hood. First there are Rottweilers; then it gets bad. Upstairs, the landlord (Everett McGill) and his sister (Wendy Robie) are raising young Alice (My So-Called Life‘s A.J. Langer) in traumatized captivity, while hoarding a Scrooge McDuck pile of their community’s wealth. In an attempt to round out their warped family unit with a “perfect boy-child,” they’ve also stolen dozens of the neighborhood’s sons, each of whom they’ve subsequently mutilated for misbehaving and stuffed into a pen in the basement to grow up big and pale eating garbage and the occasional bloody chunk of raw burglar. They’re the repressed, and eventually they return; the movie ends on a powerful message about the need for solidarity between the black working class and the large sons that the rich keep as zombielike prisoners in their cellars.
Craven cast Robie and McGill in part because he liked them in the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. McGill was Big Ed, the mechanic who pined for Peggy Lipton; Robie was Nadine, with the eyepatch and the brain on fire with drapery ideas. He was sad and solid, she was nuts. Here they’re both bugfuck crazy and incestuously entangled, although it’s never made clear if all the murder they get up to is foreplay or consummation. He gets a tension headache with DO MURDERS written all over it. She gets all hot and bothered. Instead of really giving the implications of this relationship time to curdle in your brain, Craven steers straight into gonzo; before the movie’s even half over, McGill is running around zipped up in head-to-toe S&M leather, blasting away at the kids in the walls. Somehow a lot of this material also has Home Alone on the brain; it’s almost a fun kids’ movie about dumb adults getting hit in the head with bricks, except for the parts where somebody puppeteers a flayed corpse.
Unlike those movies, The People Under the Stairs puts poor people of color — the segment of the population whose lives get bulldozed first when money terraforms a city — at the center of its story.
McGill and Robie’s characters don’t really have names. The script calls them “Man” and “Woman.” When they’re chasing Fool and Leroy around the house, horny for blood, they call each other “Mommy” and “Daddy,” the way Dennis Hopper made Isabella Rossellini do in Blue Velvet. But in 1991, just two years into the George H.W. Bush administration — Craven makes sure we see night-vision footage of bombs over Baghdad on the lost boys’ TV, so we’ll think about leaders ordering death from above for abstract targets — the first couple that those pet names brought to mind was an actual First Couple, Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Sometimes the subtext bursts through the floorboards of the text: McGill has the Gipper’s Grecian-black swoop of hair, and at one point he dons a very Presidential golfing cap to hide a wound from some numbnuts cops. But Man and Woman aren’t just caricatures. They’re avatars of corrupt parental authority who’ve forgotten to even pretend their pieties are anything but a pretext to drag the weak to hell. They’re not parodies of the Reagans; they’re what Craven thinks the Reagans look like with their masks off.
This is still a white guy’s movie from the very early 1990s. Fool’s neighborhood is the same anonymously grim backdrop you know from a thousand action movies and alley-fight video games — project hallways full of zombielike crackheads and mad dogs, a trash-can fire on every corner. But Craven doesn’t just want us to see this place as scary. He wants us to consider how it got this way, and who profited from its degeneration. McGill’s Man is a deranged cartoon of reactionary masculinity, but he has a pretty standard motivation for letting Fool’s building turn into the residential equivalent of Freddy Krueger’s boiler room. He wants everyone to move out, so he can tear the building down and put up a “nice, neat condominium” for “clean people.” The character only utters the N-word once onscreen, but as is often the case with that word, once is enough. It happens early. It tells us where he’s coming from and where the movie’s going. Man and Woman’s fear and loathing of the people in their neighborhood isn’t a symptom of their madness — it’s the disease that’s eating their brains.
It’s been nearly 30 years since The People Under the Stairs slipped in and out of theaters, and it would be great to be able to report that its themes seem dated now. But since this is a movie about deranged racists driven by a virulent strain of midcentury Christian moralism to keep children in cages while conspiring to disenfranchise the poor, that’s not going to work. Everything that happens in this movie could happen next month and it would be a one-day cable-news story that Fox would probably not cover. Daddy has already shut us all in the cellar; to think Wes Craven fans used to complain this movie wasn’t scary enough.
Previously: Minority Report