It’s October, a month in which the far-reaching specter of Halloween has grown as long a tail as Christmas. As such, it’s tradition to watch as many scary movies as one conceivably can. There’s even a new “Halloween” out in theaters and streaming on Peacock. Still, a few clicks away on that same streaming service, you’ll find a genuinely underrated gem just dying to be rediscovered by the masses: Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs.”
Upon its release in 1991, film critic Vincent Canby called “The People Under the Stairs” an “affirmative-action horror film.” But this isn’t just some early “representation matters” attempt to center Black faces on screen, where a boilerplate horror premise slots in Black folk with little care for our actual stories. This is something altogether deeper and more daring. Coming off the sensationalist thriller “Shocker” and the Haitian Vodou zombie flick “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” both made for Universal, the studio gave Craven a small budget and let him riff on whatever he wanted.
Taking inspiration from a 1978 news article about a Los Angeles burglary that resulted in police discovering children being held captive, Craven extrapolated that kernel of an idea into a chaotic, horrifying, and twisted fairy tale. The resulting film is about gentrification, necrocapitalism, and George Bush Sr.’s rise to power following the Reagan era. The film follows Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams), a Black boy in Los Angeles who experiences a tortured sort of bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday. He finds out that his family is getting evicted and that, as his cancer-stricken grandmother ruefully informs him, he is the man of the house now. With just 24 hours to produce a significant amount of money, Fool is coerced into partaking in a burglary by Leroy (Ving Rhames), a character through whom many hard truths about growing up disenfranchised are given voice. He treats Fool with a tough love that suggests he was thrust into the same position in his own youth.
But what seems like an easy take—prying a collection of gold coins from Fool’s landlord’s house—turns into an absolute nightmare. The house is owned by a couple credited as only Man and Woman (played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie from “Twin Peaks”), though they refer to each other as Daddy and Mommy, a twisted, comic book simulacrum of Ronnie and Nancy Regan. It’s not long before Fool and Leroy discover that breaking into this house is considerably easier than escaping it. We discover that the couple doesn’t just live with their young daughter Alice (A.J. Langer) and their bloodthirsty dog Prince, but also a small army of emaciated, snow-pale cannibals locked up in the basement.
What follows is a baffling, tonally adventurous horror effort that shows Craven dialing up the unreality to impressive heights. There’s still the expected level of suspenseful mastery at play, but there’s a gonzo aura to the camera work, the staging, and the pitch-black humor on display. It’s strange to see the man who made “The Hills Have Eyes” reverse engineer the home-invasion thriller and the heist movie into a kind of backward take on “Home Alone” as shot by Sam Raimi. “The People Under The Stairs” threads a very delicate needle through withering social commentary about stolen resources and the over-policing of marginalized communities. But it’s realized as a “Looney Tunes”-level caper of a young boy outsmarting the literal manifestations of Reaganomics, with occasional help from a trapped group of derelicts forced to subsist on human flesh.
Craven makes a meal out of the layout of this house, lensing it with a texture and tactility that lets you feel all the accumulated dust on the heirloom furniture, all the secret passageways and hidden traps built into its structure. There’s a claustrophobic air to a home that, as Fool puts it in comparison to the tiny apartment he comes from, could house ten whole families. But it doesn’t feel safe or welcoming, even the facade parts of it. As “Mommy” charms a squadron of police into not looking further into her domicile, she echoes the maxim of many an economically anxious suburbanite: “It’s as if we’re the prisoners and the criminals roam free.” It truly is 100+ minutes of fantastical scares rooted in real-life tragedy until it devolves into an Acme-sponsored smorgasbord of righteous comeuppance, the literal violence of vampiric class warfare returned in kind by the very victims of its wrath.
In a movie stuffed to the brim with terrifying imagery, one scene is likely to linger in the mind long after the credits roll. In the film’s exponentially cartoonish final act, Fool finds himself in a hidden basement room behind the pen where the cannibal children are caged. Inside lies an endless reserve of cartoonish paper, sweaty crumbled bills strewn and stacked high like Scrooge McDuck’s iconic vault. It’s difficult to recall a film that made money look uglier on screen, but it’s a portrait that perfectly captures what true financial largesse is.
The 1 percent may see their net worths in digital ones and zeroes, in property, in the abstract, but to the rest of us, hoarding wealth on any scale is indistinguishable from throwing trash bags full of cash into a spare room, never to be seen, circulated, or spent.
By the time we see this room, Craven has shown us so many absurd and atonal moments it feels like his villains are too over the top. But with this sight and the truly cathartic carnage that follows it, he makes an emphatic statement that reminds us how much more grotesque and harmful the real Mommys and Daddys of the world actually are.