Sunday, August 5, 2012

The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991)

We've all been there. One of the deranged people you have locked in your basement has escaped and has started to wander around in the crawl space of your luxurious yet fortified house located on the wrong side of the tracks. And no matter how much you try to match their enthusiasm by running around in a fully-equipped leather bondage suit (complete with studs and a zipper-adorned mask) firing the occasional shotgun blast into the walls and ceiling, you can't seem to catch the tongueless little bastard. Okay, so maybe no-one has been there, but they're the kind of problems a mentally unwell man and woman face in The People Under the Stairs, an urban (i.e. black people are in it) horror film from Wes Craven (Cursed) set inside a suburban house that is filled with cannibalistic freaks. Whoa, wait a goddamn minute. How can the film be "urban" and "suburban" at the same time? Oh, man, I didn't notice that. All right. Let me see. I got it: the film's protagonist lives in an urban setting, yet the horror he experiences takes place in surroundings that are more suburban in nature. You could say that they endure horrific circumstances in both locations. But I think it's safe to say the crime-ridden streets of "the ghetto" are no match for the ghastly surprises that lurk behind the doors of a certain house in the suburbs. Now that I've cleared that up, I must say, it was refreshing to see a horror movie with some redeeming social value. I mean, not only does it shine a light on excessive greed, it openly implies that forced confinement is wrong. Whether that message gets through to all the people who currently have human beings locked somewhere in their place of residence is unclear, but those of you who are not sitting in a pile of their own feces will definitely think twice the next time they're over at their neighbour's for afternoon tea and you suddenly hear strange scratching noises coming from inside the walls. When I was up for jury duty a couple of years ago, one of the charges read against the defendant was "forced confinement," so as an expert on the subject, I can tell you, it's all too real.
Walk through any town in Canada, and I'll bet that at least fifty percent of the population have or will be forcibly confined to a small room, or worse, a specially designed "confinement room," at one point in their life. I know, you're thinking: fifty percent, isn't that a tad high? Yes, I realize that number may come across somewhat extreme, but like Christian Slater says in Heathers, "The extreme always makes an impression." And I'm not talking about prisons or poorly run nursing homes, I'm talking about families living in a so-called free society.
You know why you don't see kids playing in the park anymore? I'll tell you why. It's because Wendy Robie and Everett McGill have locked them in their cellar and are feeding them a steady diet of free range Ving Rhames.
Did you just say, Wendy Robie? Not to sound crude or anything, but I've always wanted to feed my penis to her vagina; if you know what I mean. You don't? Well, you see, my penis is the hot dog, and her vagina is the...Yeah, we know exactly what you mean, you hopeless twit.
Life for the last legal tenants living in a rundown apartment on Lennox Ave., one that is swarming with authentic-looking early '90s era crackheads, has just gotten a lot harder, as they've been told that they will be evicted unless they can scrounge together at least three months rent by midnight tomorrow. The thing is, the landlords want to tear down the building so that they can erect a condo in its place, but Fool (Brandon Adams), yeah, that's right, Fool, has other ideas. Well, actually, a friend of the family named Leroy (Ving Rhames) is the one who comes up with the harebrained scheme to rob the landlords of their purported stash of gold coins, but it's Fool ("Dexter" to his ailing mother) who spearheads their campaign.
Meanwhile, we get a small taste of what Leroy, Fool, and Spenser (Jeremy Roberts), Leroy's white van driving friend with goatee (the van's not white, he's white), are in for when we enter the residence of the landlords. The first thing we see is Mommy (Wendy Robie) walking down one of the dark hallways of her spacious home. I thought the way the camera remained trained on the back of her legs, which were encased in tan stockings with black seams, did a terrific job building up the character's mystique. Popping in to assist her daughter Alice (A.J. Langer) put on a dress (one that she made for her), Mommy becomes annoyed when she discovers her fork is missing. Desperately trying to locate the missing fork, Alice is a given a fork by a mysterious hand that emerges from a heating duct. Finding the fork, however, doesn't get Alice off the hook, as Daddy (Everett McGill) enters her room and is told by Mommy that she's been feeding Roach (Sean Whalen), the tongueless boy who lives in the walls, and, not to mention, helps little girls when they lose cutlery. Told not to hit her in the face, Daddy proceeds to take off his belt while telling her, "bad girls burn in hell."
Using the wide-eyed thirteen year-old in a unique way, Leroy and Spenser have Fool pretend he's a Bear Scout in order that he can case the joint. Unfortunately, he doesn't make much leeway as Mommy shuts down all his attempts to enter the house (she won't even let him use the bathroom). The only thing he did succeed in doing was getting Wendy Robie out in the light of day, as she's more lovely than I remembered; like most people, I first fell in love with Wendy as Nadine Hurley on Twin Peaks.
After Fool tells the "grown ups" they have locks on the outside of their windows (locks are normally located on the inside), Spenser decides to dress up as a gas man. Great plan, as it gets him inside the house. The only problem being, he forgot to take off his skull ring. Why can't guys who work for the gas company wear skull rings? They can totally wear skull rings, but Mommy doesn't seem to think to so. In other words, she sees right through Spenser's little charade.
The longer Spenser remains inside, the more suspicious Leroy gets (he thinks Spenser is in there grabbing all the gold for himself). His suspicion increases when he sees Mommy drive off in her car. Why would she leave the gas man in her house? This causes Leroy to do something really stupid, he parks the van in their driveway. What did he do that for? I mean, they [Leroy and Fool] could have just walked to the house from where they were already parked. It didn't make any sense.
Grabbing his trusty crowbar, Leroy intends to show Fool the proper way to break into a house. Making it past three doors, the third one being the toughest, Leroy and Fool are confronted by Prince, Mommy and Daddy's fearsome rottweiler. Managing to subdue Prince, Fool checks out the basement, while Leroy heads upstairs. The former was supposed to stay in the living room, but creaking sounds coming from inside the walls prompts Fool to go into sleuth mode. Since it's only a matter of time before Mommy and Daddy come home, Fool is about discover what's really going on inside this house.
There are locks on the outside of the windows not because they want keep people from breaking in, they're meant to prevent people from breaking out. Isn't that creepy? Well, not entirely so, as Fool befriends Alice, a girl who makes dolls that look like all the people who have had the misfortune of entering this house in the past (Avon ladies, postal employees, burglars, and Jehovah's Witnesses).  Clutching a doll that looks like Fool (complete with a stripped, Freddy Krueger-style sweater) when they first meet, Alice forms an unlikely alliance with the would be thief. Well, their relationship might have seemed unlikely at first, but since they're both children who find themselves locked in a house with a couple of nut-jobs, they're pretty much in the same boat. Only difference being, Fool has been outside, whereas Alice has spent her entire life inside this house, so she doesn't even realize she's trapped.
In case you were wondering, the reason Alice is able to move freely about the house, unlike the unfortunate souls who live under the stairs, is because she strictly adheres to the home's "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" policy, and plus, Mommy likes to dress her up like she's a living doll.
In a house like this, you can't have too many friends. Forming yet another alliance with Roach, the escaped stair dweller who lives inside the walls, Fool battles with Prince, tries not to get blasted by Daddy's shotgun (he spends most of his free time hunting Roach in a leather bondage suit), and does his best to avoid the many boobytraps placed throughout the home's labyrinthian network of tunnels and hiding spots.
While I enjoyed the odd friendship that develops between Fool, Roach and Alice, it was the demented rapport that Mommy and Daddy share with one another that really scratched me where I itch. And judging by the way she tells him to, "Go straight to your room and get in your suit," after Daddy breaks the no firing guns outside rule, it's obvious that Mommy is the more dominant of the two weirdos.
Whether sweet talking the cops or forcing her daughter to scrub blood off the floor (the sight of A.J. Langer slipping in blood looked totally genuine), Wendy Robie is a force of unhinged nature as Mommy, the slinkiest, most alluring doolally tap currently on the market. I'd like to quickly point out that the reason I keep calling her "Mommy" is because you never actually hear her name uttered in the film. If I were to name her, I would go with something sexy like, Beatrice or Blanche, or maybe even Betty or Bianca (the Italian version of "Blanche"). Yeah, I like those.
Anyway, Miss Robie gives crazy a good name in The People Under the Stairs, as she completely justifies the shape of her drawn on eyebrows. A lesser actress would have let her eyebrows do the majority of the heavy lifting when it came to doling out the meshugganah. But Wendy Robie isn't about cutting corners, no way, she grabs sanity by the collar and tells it to get the fuck out of her angelic face. You wanna know why? I tell you why, she's here, she's brainsick, get motherfuckin' used to it.
I liked how she could say, "burn in hell" (the signature line of her of batshit-based vocabulary) and "caca" (her profanity of choice) within mere seconds of one another. Proving that while deadly serious when it comes to damning the souls of others to the flames of eternal hellfire, Wendy also has a bit of a playful side. If it wasn't for Brandon Adams and his rare brand of likability ("rare" because most child actors are obnoxious), I would have been totally at ease had the movie ended with Mommy, and, I supposes, Daddy, coming out on top. Of course, you know they're not, but if they had, I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. It's a testament to the relish in which Wendy Robie, and, I suppose, Everett McGill, tackled their respective roles.. And, if you think about it, other than Ving Rhames's kofia, they're the main reason The People Under the Stairs is considered a classic; well, at least I think it's a classic. That being said, anyone who thinks otherwise can, you guessed it, burn in hell.

video uploaded by trenq13


  1. This film is a goddamn hoot!

    Too bad Wes Craven went totally downhill after this.

  2. It was a hoot and a half as they would say on Cape Breton Island.

    I'm thinking about giving A Nightmare on Elm St. a go next; I've never seen it.

  3. Are you from Cape Breton? My sister lived in Halifax for years and has lots of friends from there. Said she can't understand their accents when they get drunk.

    I should re-phrase that: I've read that Craven went downhill from here. This and "New Nightmare" are the only films of his I've ever seen. I know I should watch "Last House on the Left" since its a remake of Bergman's "Virgin Spring", and Bergman (and Tsukamoto Shinya) is my favorite director. But I really don't like watching rape.

    I'd be interested to see your take on "Nightmare".

  4. Nope, I'm not from Cape Breton. I just thought that "hoot and a half" sounded like something they might say out there. :D

    I'm tempted to go straight to Nightmare part 3, as I hear Jennifer Rubin (Bad Dreams, The Crush) plays a punk chick.

  5. One of the oddest movies I ever saw starred Jennifer Rubin and Kyle Secor. It was called Delusion. But I guess by Yum-Yum standards, you might consider fairly normal. Hee hee.

    Yeah, there was something odd about that "cult" EW list, besides their snub of Duet, or any of the other early Fox shows. (Damnit, where is Herman's Head?!?) I'm a huge fan of The Wire, but I wouldn't even call it cult.

    I was drooling at the Daniel Craig/Bond stuff in this week's issue.

  6. I couldn't help but notice that Jennifer Rubin is wearing cowboy boots with a floral sundress (a very in look circa 1991) on the poster for Delusion. Anyway, I'll add Delusion to the list (I've always wanted to watch a K.A. recommendation). :D

    Herman's fucking Head! Now that's a cult show. I would add Parker Lewis Can't Lose, The Ben Stiller Show and Flying Blind to the list of early Fox stuff. All the shows they picked (except for Wonder Showzen and My so-called Life) were way too popular to be considered cult in my opinion. I mean, c'mon. Lost?!? That was a huge show.

    I enjoyed the interview with George Lazenby. :)

  7. Well, if I'm going to recommend a movie, I'd prefer it be good. Frankly, I barely remember Delusion. :)

    Speaking of "real" cult shows, dissent and I watch Louie. I don't know if you watch it, too, but a recent episode featured Casey Siemaszko, nearly unrecognizable as a homeless guy. I had an urge to go to YouTube and listen to "Something to Remember Me By."

  8. Okay, Delusion is off the list. :D

    If you can think of any "good" movies that are suitable, feel free to recommend them.

    I don't think I get the channel that airs Louie in Canada. I should rent the DVD or watch it online like a normal person.

    Not to brag, but I knew "Something to Remember Me By" was connected somehow to Three O'Clock High.

  9. Great article. Lived the "Mommy" and "Daddy" characters. And, I agree with you, Wendy Robie is lovely, especially in the 1940s style she wears in the film. I always felt she looked like a "Blanche" or "Norma", both sexy names.