I had only ever seen maybe a couple minutes of the first part of this movie before and I’m glad I could finally sit down and watch it. I love Wes Craven in general and this was one of the few big movies of his that I had missed. The People Under the Stairs focuses on Poindexter, a.k.a. Fool, on his 13th birthday. His mother is sick, his family is about to be evicted, and there seems to be nothing he can do to help until his sister’s friend Leroy ropes him into helping with a robbery against the very landlords that are about to kick them out. It’s then that they discover the dark secret that is being kept hidden by the richest family in the neighborhood.
The movie deals with a few different themes that intertwine through the hour and 45 minute run time. The first and most apparent to start is that of the class separation. You have Fool and his family barely getting by in a rundown are of the ghetto and the landlords sitting in front of a large fireplace eating a huge meal and talking about kicking out the last of the residents to make way for “clean” residents in a new building. The option to turn to robbery in order to save his family isn’t even really presented as a real moral problem for Fool. It is the only option available that might mean being able to survive and not be thrown out on the streets. The movie ends with the song “Do the Right Thing” which should, of course, bring to mind the Spike Lee movie of the same name. Wes Craven was very purposefully trying to make a horror movie that evoked the idea of the down trodden black community getting mad and going after the white oppressors.
Towards the end of the film, you find out that the landlords have been hoarding the money they have made from their real estate dealings over the past generations. Fool comments “No wonder there’s no money in the community” pointing out how they have gotten rich off of the people but put none of that money back in to improving the neighborhood. There is a large amount of community vs. isolation that goes on where ultimately no matter how much power you have, the majority can rise up to overthrow you. This is seen in both the actual members of the community showing up at the end and in the titular people under the stairs rising up to destroy their captors.
The film also heavily plays on the idea of growing up and moving from child to adult. The movie starts with Fool getting a Tarot reading that talks about him having to face hardship in order to become a man. The captive people in the basement are the “children” that the landlords have abducted and discarded for not being perfect over the years. They also have a daughter, Alice, that ends up helping Fool even though she is afraid. The rebellion and pushing at boundaries that comes with growing up is made into an actual life or death struggle with parents that are demented and set on controlling every action she takes. It also intertwines with the ideas of class showing how having money doesn’t make for a good family and having little doesn’t make for a bad one.
The last bit that is interesting is how it plays out much like a fairy tale. I really only noticed this given the fact that I had an entire week on the fairy tale horror movies. It has elements from all sorts of classic tales. The wicked step-parents that mistreat their innocent daughter. The actual robbery is very much like Jack and the Beanstalk with the landlords as giants, Fool as the son trying to save his mother, and the treasure which is actual gold coins. Them meeting their end at the hands of the children they had essentially turned into monsters also has the poetic justice of those classic Grimm fairy tales. This movie ends up basically covering 3 of the 4 topics for the month.
While all of this sounds great, it does suffer in a few areas. Mostly the tone of the movie can’t seem to land on what it wants to be. At times it tries to play up the horror with the basement dwellers being cannibals and the landlords being shown as abusive and murderers. Other times it seems downright cartoonish in Fool running through the walls, trying to foil the fumbling attempts of the over-the-top villains trying to get at him. The problem with the movie trying to incorporate so many different themes and ideas is that the movie really feels a bit scattered with none of the ideas getting particularly focused on to a large degree.
Overall, I did enjoy the movie and think it still has some merit to it. Hell, I want to give the movie a high score just because it let me hear Ving Rhames utter the words “Yeah and maybe the President’s gonna make me Secretary of Pussy.” I give it a 4 out of 5 and, while not Wes Craven’s best work, it is definitely worth watching.