Several days ago it was announced that Wes Craven and SyFy would team up for a television adaptation of his cult classic The People Under the Stairs. An announcement that caught me and fans of the film by surprised. How? How in the hell can you take one of the coolest, strangest, bizarre horror films of all time and turn it into a TV show? Of course for some people, their reaction is “Whats People Under the Stairs?”
One of the greatest films ever made!
I had this conversation with a couple of my uncles a couple years back who are bigger film nerds than I am. I was surprised they weren’t familiar with this gem from Wes Craven of Freddy Krueger and Scream fame. Especially as in the mid-90s it was on cable all the time. I had to explain what it was. A kid helps a couple crooks break into this house of a crazy white couple with people locked under the stairs while looking for treasure but he gets trapped inside. Then I had to pull it out and dazzle. You got to understand me-This is one of those films you remember. Its different. It does not work like you expect it to. You can argue its not even a horror film. In fact-after the TV announcement I’ve seen people refer to it as a contemporary fairy tale. It was like a revelation. Its genre defying in its execution and ambition even if I don’t think that Craven was going out of his way to try to reinvent the horror wheel. Its a favorite for many, especially with black men and women who’ve seen it as its a horror film with a black lead.
Lets look at that tag line: In every neighborhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid.
That’s just brilliant. I mean, isn’t it true? Maybe not every neighborhood but growing up you’d hear stories or rumors about weird or dangerous people in certain houses. I had a few times. Its a tagline that people can relate to and even those who can’t, can still imagine easily. A lot of the best horror is about facing the unknown, facing what others fear. The lead character of Fool is going into a house that’s locked shut, that his sister heard stories about, looking for treasure. Okay-lets back up.
Poindexter Williams better known as Fool, played by Brandon Quintin Adams, is a poor kid who’s sister has kids and his mom has cancer. They’re the last family in a tenement building and are about to be evicted. His sister (played by Kelly Jo Winter) has a friend, Leroy (played by Ving Rhames), who robbed a liquor store with a friend and found out the owners has a huge rare coin collection. Those owners also own their building and others in the ghetto. Leroy wants Fool to help him and his buddy rob these assholes. Said assholes are never named in film and are credited as Man and Woman, played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie who also played a married couple in Twin Peaks. The two are strange, twisted. They have a little girl name Alice, played by AJ Langer who is best known from My So-Called Life. Alice lives in fear of them as she tries to be a good girl.
So far, its an odd set up for a horror movie. It gives a bit of a glimpse of whats to come. It really picks up in the house. First Leroys partner Spenser is able to get in and is left alone in the house. Leroy and Fool break in, have a run in with a dog, and once free of his bite start searching the home. A home that is designed to make sure nothing gets out. Fool finds Spenser dead in the basement, scared to death by something, and there is something down there. The couple return to find a break in and things start picking up. Including Man dressed in a gimp costume firing shotgun shells. The film has a schlock value and a touch of the dark humor in it. It also has cannibalism and zombie looking people running around under the stairs. Fool is trying to get out of the house. To do that he needs help from Alice and Roach-one of the people who got out from the basement. Roach has no tongue and its meant as a punishment in the tune of the phrase “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” which is what the crazy family live by.
The film amazed me as a child even though it was a cut version on basic cable. It was creepy and unusual. The majority of the movie takes place inside the house. The spaces in between the walls, the secret doors, and focuses on the battle of Fool against these people. The notion of trying to hide from what is chasing you is bad enough but when you’re both in one location its ever worse. I don’t exactly remember the first time I saw it but I eventually taped it, commercials and all, and watched it every once in a while. It was an important film, I think, because I was young when it was out. I was Fool’s age when I first saw the movie. I viewed it as a type of adventure film in a way and only now I see it as the fairy tale. It makes so much sense. My enjoyment of the film increased even more so with knowing about gentrification and class status. Sure, those themes aren’t executed in a manner worth heralding, but those themes added an extra layer. When I was a kid it seemed so much bigger and while it lost a little of that brilliance as an adult, I still admired it for using those themes as a loose framework. The schlock value, weird humor, and pacing hold up well even as an adult.
While I love Fool and Alice as characters, the film definitely owes a lot to McGill and Robie for being able to make it work. They are so outrageous and despicable. They are almost cartoons at times. If they had casted wrong this film would have suffered greatly. But lets roll back to Fool and Alice. AJ Langer’s Alice is important in us buying into the villains. Her reactions and delivery pound home the villains performances. The scene where the Woman throws Alice in a bath tub of scalding water? Frightening. Simple idea, beautifully executed. Brandon’s Fool almost has the easiest role in a way, but because of who he is, and the framework of the story its far more relevant than it should be. He’s not just a hero in a horror film. He’s a black knight. In this age of “representation matters” I find it strange we don’t really talk about this character. A young, pre/early teen male who is the hero. He has to defeat the evil couple, save Alice, and save his family. Not only does he do that-he does more. He goes the extra length. He is scared but he is committed to doing what he sees as right. So much so cracks wise and fights a crazy man in a gimp suit with a shotgun. Yes, the movie relies heavily on McGill and Robie to make the horror work and yes it needs Langer to allow us a view point into those crazy characters craziness but Fool is important for who he is. A black hero.
The People Under the Stairs has a 58% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 19 critic reviews. I scanned through a few but ultimately its more interesting for me to see reviews as a part of a films legacy than it is the actual review itself. The movie made over 30 million on a 6 million dollar budget. Really, it should not even be considered a cult classic since it was a financial success that even opened number 1 but somehow it is. I wish I knew more about its time in the theaters, the reaction to it, the behind the scenes and how it became a basic cable fixture rather than a much talked about horror movie. Maybe those answers will be in the upcoming special edition Blu-Ray believed to be dropping in August. I hope the blu-ray has some good stuff.
I urge you to check this film out. I highly recommend it.