The People under the Stairs

USA 1991, 102 mins
Director: Wes Craven

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, The People under the Stairs is one of Wes Craven’s less well remembered films, often overlooked amid all the adulation for the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream films. Which is a shame, as it’s one of Craven’s most overtly political films – like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) it pits two disparate family groups against each other, in this case a wealthy and venal white couple against a poor and victimised working class black family.

Young black Los Angelino Fool (Brandon Adams) and his family are facing eviction from their white landlords the Robesons (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). Fool accompanies Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) on a mission to break into the Robesons’ house, believing that they’re hoarding a stash of gold coins. But the robbery goes awry when Spencer is killed and Fool stumbles across a large group of feral, pale-faced cannibal children locked up in the basement. Fool also meets Alice (A.J. Langer), supposedly the Robesons’ daughter; though as he learns later, she and the other children in the basement were all abducted by the Robesons. Along with Roach (Sean Whalen) who has had his tongue cut out by the Robesons, they try to stay one step ahead of both the insane couple and their flesh-eating brood.

Craven took inspiration, in part, from the true story of a pair of burglars who broke into a Los Angeles house and inadvertently alerted the police to a pair of siblings who had been locked away in the cellar by their parents. Craven transforms an already shocking story into a witty and often very shocking film that has something interesting and important to say but never loses sight of its basic requirement – to scare its audience. And on that score, there’s no doubting its efficacy, containing as it does some of Craven’s most impressive jolts.

It’s a dark fairy story, with a princess that needs rescuing, a valiant young prince, wicked step-parents, a legendary stash of gold and an old dark house where the physical laws of the universe no longer seem to apply (Craven has referred to the house – which, as in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, seems to expand infinitely as the story demands it – as ‘the whole society of the United States’. It’s Hansel and Gretel given a Gothic twist and transplanted to the ghettos of Los Angeles, then shot through with a streak of contemporary social politics – at the end, the victimised masses unite, rise up, overthrow their oppressors and literally tear down their capitalist edifice and redistribute their wealth.

Craven’s usual wit shines through, and amid the horror it’s often very funny. Indeed, the film’s masterstroke is in tackling weighty subjects – racism, inequality, greed – without ever taking itself terribly seriously. Its tongue is never far from its cheek, though it doesn’t skimp on the horror. There are plenty of creepy moments, macabre detours and effective scares, even if it’s not as grisly as perhaps it could have been.

The casting is perfect. Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer and Sean Whalen make for a likeable trio, with none of the precociousness that too often afflicts young performers. Ving Rhames comes and goes before he gets a chance to make that much of an impact so the adult acting end is held up by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, reunited from Twin Peaks, where they played another married couple, ‘Big’ Ed and Nadine Hurley. Robie has a nice line in uncontrolled hysteria while McGill rampaging around the house in full leather fetish gear brandishing a shotgun is quite the sight to behold. The mutant brood in the cellar are realised by the effects make-up of KNB’s Gregory Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger – if they don’t always exactly convince, they’re a lot of fun, a ghastly little family that finds themselves caught between the impromptu family formed by Fool, Alice and Roach and the repulsive Robesons.

The People under the Stairs is a constantly surprising and inventive film, intelligent, funny and when it needs to be, quite scary. As a satire, it’s focused and potent (the film’s sharpest barbs are reserved for Reagan-era capitalism), the story twists and turns admirably and when the going gets nasty in the basement it’s satisfyingly unpleasant. It was released between the ho-hum Shocker (1989) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1992) – the first flowering of the post-modern strain of horror that Craven would farm so effectively in the next few years. It’s definitely one of Craven’s high points and a film that has held up notably well – it was a hit at the box office in 1991 and it’s having fallen under the shadow of the director’s better-known films is a pity as it still has much to offer.

Craven had plans to remake the film and later announced a television series spin-off but neither ever got any further than the planning stages. In late 2020, Jordan Peele (director of Get Out (2017), Us (2019) and Nope (2022)) and Win Rosenfeld (producer of BlacKkKlansman (2018) and the Candyman (2021) remake) signed up for a remake.
Kevin Lyons, The EOFFTV Review, eofftvreview.wordpress.com

Director: Wes Craven
Production Companies: Universal Pictures Company, Alive Films
Executive Producers: Shep Gordon, Wes Craven
Producers: Marianne Maddalena, Stuart M. Besser
Co-producer: Dixie Capp
Associate Producer: Peter Foster
Unit Production Manager: Stuart M. Besser
Production Co-ordinator: Sarah James Arbeid
Location Manager: Judson Neil Schwartz
Post-production Co-ordinator: Yvonne Valdez
2nd Unit Director: Peter Chesney
1st Assistant Directors: Nick Mastandrea, Rosemary C. Cremona, Melanie Knox
Casting: Eileen Knight
Extras Casting: The Casting Group, Rick Montgomery
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Director of Photography: Sandi Sissel
2nd Unit Director of Photography: Tony Cutrono
Camera Operator: George Billinger
Additional Camera Operator: Chris Hayes
Steadicam Operators: Dan Kneece, Jeff Mart
Video Playback: Intervideo
Special Effects: Image Engineering
Image Engineering Supervisors: Peter Chesney, Gregory Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, Howard Berger
Image Engineering Key Co-ordinator: Dean Miller
Image Engineering Projects Co-ordinator: Kate Steinberg
Image Engineering Technicians: J.D. Street, Sandy Stewart
Image Engineering Keys: Mark Maitre, Earl Ellis
Mechanical Dog Effects: Robert Clark, Roark Productions
Roark Productions Crew: Camilla Henneman, , Rikelle Kerr, Mark Goldberg, Jim Mclaughlin, Mark Goodell, Kent Jones
Fibreglass Moulds: Make Believe Productions
Editors: James Coblentz, Tom Walls
Production Designer: Bryan Jones
Art Director: Steven Lloyd Shroyer
Set Decorator: Molly Flanegin
On-set Dresser: Daniel M. Butts
Storyboard Artist: Philip Mayor
Costume Designer: Ileane Meltzer
Set Costumer: Yvette M. Walsh
Wardrobe Supervisor: Tim Wegman
Make-up: Michelle Bühler
Special Make-up Effects: KNB EFX Group Inc
Title Design: Kathie Broyles, Jeff Okun
Opticals: Howard Anderson Company
Music: Don Peake
Additional Orchestral Music: Graeme Revell
Music Editor: Dick Bernstein
Sound Recording: Donald Summer
Supervising Sound Re-recordists: Peter Reale, Howarth Wilmarth
Sound Re-recordist: Roberta Doheny
Supervising Sound Editor: Paul Clay
Sound Editors: Carin Rogers, Susan Kurtz, Jeff Sandler, Mike Szackmeister, Richard Bozeat
ADR Recordist: Tanya Sharp David
ADR Editors: Pat Somerset, Ernesto Mas
Foley Artists: Diane Marshall, Jerry Trent
Foley Recordist: Karen Roulo
Stunt Co-ordinator: Tony Cecere
Stunts: Linda Arvidson, Marian E. Green, Kelsee Devoreaux, Beth Nufer, Sandy Gimpel, Paula Moody, Birgit K. Schier, Melvin Jones, Lori Lynn Ross, Eric Mansker, Dane Farwell, John Branagan, Dan Rycerz, Rex L. Waddell Jr, Lynn Salvatori, Jeff Habberstad, William R. Perry
Stand-ins: Wanda Welch, David Riggons, Julie Mondin, Sean Lemar, Roxanne ‘Rocky’ Meyers, Van Johnson
Dolby Stereo Consultant: Steve F.B. Smith
Head Animal Trainers: Roger Schumacher, Jim Dew
Animal Trainer: Angelo Rivers

Brandon Adams (Poindexter ‘Fool’ Williams)
Everett McGill (man, ‘Daddy’)
Wendy Robie (woman, ‘Mummy’)
A.J. Langer (Alice)
Ving Rhames (Leroy)
Sean Whalen (Roach)
Bill Cobbs (Grandpapa Booker)
Kelly Jo Minter (Ruby)
Jeremy Roberts (Spenser)
Conni Marie Brazelton (Mary)
Joshua Cox (young cop)
John Hostetter (veteran cop)
John Mahon (police sergeant)
Teresa Velarde (social worker)
George Parker (attic cop)
Yan Birch (stairmaster)
Wayne Daniels, Michael Kopelow (stairpeople)
Bubba, Schultz, Zeke (Prince)
Nick Cramer, Robert Michael, Earl Dax, David Robinson, Gregory Kavtzer, Daniel Windtree, Burton Pierce (people under the stairs)

USA 1991
102 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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