Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: The People under the Stairs


Film: The People under the Stairs (1991)

Written and Directed by: Wes Craven

Starring: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie


With all due respect to Freddy Krueger, I think The People under the Stairs is my favorite Wes Craven film.  It’s absurd without being moronic, disturbing without losing the plot, and best of all it has a wonderful sense of claustrophobia and dread.  Even in its silliest moments that dread is there, which is all the more punctuated by the moments when the tension gives way to silliness.  This is a great horror movie.

The story centers around a ghetto kid named Fool, who in appearance and demeanor resembles the brashly intelligent kids from The Boondocks. With his mom dying and the family facing eviction from their apartment, Fool gets taken in by a young Ving Rhames and taught the burglar’s trade.  Rumor has it that the slumlords responsible for the family’s predicament are sitting on a horde of gold coins, and Fool’s mentor intends to collect.

Problem is, the landlords are a bit more than simply greedy ghetto aristocrats.  The mom-and-pop opportunists are an awesome display of insanity.  First of all, Mom and Pop are also brother and sister.  Nice.  In fact, they come from a long and almost entirely vertical family tree, which clearly had an effect.  Their labyrinthine house is also home to a human-eating Rottweiler, a molested and perpetually terrified “daughter,” and the titular People, failed attempts at abducting a properly moral son which end up mutilated and dumped in the basement to starve when the parents get disappointed.

As a pair, they spend most of the movie running around their house, screaming “Burn in Hell!” at the top of their lungs as they try to stop poor Fool from defiling their daughter.  Individually, they’re even greater.

Mom is a monster housewife, sporting big red hair, thick-painted eyebrows, and a hooker’s crooked mouth.  Her psychotic attempts at imposing moral order may be less overtly frightening than her counterpart’s, but she’s the real terror in this story.

Dad, however, is simply amazing.  He looks every bit the perverted pastor, and he runs with the prejudice to amazing heights.  His role is to be the muscle, and much of his time on screen is spent storming through the house and blasting holes in the walls with a shotgun.  Even better, he does much of the rampaging in a full-body leather Gimp suit.  Fantastic.

As much as I got behind Fool’s desperate attempts to get out of the house, there’s no denying that Mom and Pop are the heart of this film.  The joyous terror they infuse every scene with makes this one of the best fright flicks ever.

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