Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs – The Test of Time

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must-see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY WES CRAVEN

STARRING BRANDON ADAMS, VING RHAMES, WENDY ROBIE, EVERETT MCGILL, A.J. LANGER

Unfathomable as it may seem, Wes Craven’s criminally overlooked movie melange The People Under the Stairs (WATCH IT HERE) turned 30 years old on November 1, 2021. Even though the amorphous horror flick – part cruel kidnap and horrifying hostage thriller, part sadistic slasher, part tale of demented parental abuse – drew middling reviews at the time of its release in the fall of 1991, the flick actually earned nearly all of its $6 budget back on opening weekend before amassing a total north of $31 million internationally. Yet, for as financially lucrative as the film is, people still don’t regard PUTS in the same upper-echelon Wes Craven titles like Elm Street, Scream, Last House on the Left, and the like. But at the time, the film was one of the more socially salient of Craven’s career, tapping into a cultural zeitgeist that spotlighted, however glancingly, such weighty topics as gentrification the Black community, maniacal landlords who profit without compunction, systemic police profiling, racial discrimination, and other gravid social issues that have only magnified in the last 30 years. It’s through that prism, and more importantly, how scary the movie is nowadays when we officially crack open the f*cking floorboards and pit The People Under the Stairs up against the Test of Time below!

THE STORY: As he’s been known to do with great success in the past, Wes Craven found inspiration for the story of PUTS by reading a creepy story in a newspaper about burglaries fleeing the scene before the police arrived. When the authorities swept the place, they heard strange noises the led to a locked room, where the homeowners’ children were being held against their will and forbade to go outside. Ever. This prompted Craven to pen a script by himself, a recurring feat of his that often lacks the credit it deserves, about creepy ass couple of funeral homeowners who refer to themselves as Mommy (Wendy Robie, who bears a freaky resemblance to Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, on several occasions in the film) and Daddy (Everett McGill), who turns out to be baleful brother and sister in the end. Although the story is only as good as it as vile villains, the story belongs to Fool (Brandon Adams), a precocious little badass who, due to being unable to make rent in an ever-pricier Los Angeles suburb, is coerced by the ultra-cool Leroy (Ving Rhames) into breaking into to the Robeson Funeral Home to steal prized gold coins stashed somewhere inside. 

Once Fool and Leroy go after their pal Spenser (Jeremy Robert) inside the house, all three realize that the murderous manse is reinforced from the inside, making it impossible to escape what essentially becomes a claustrophobic deathtrap. More disturbing yet, Fool finds a de facto daughter figure named Alice (AJ Langer, looking like Lea Thompson fresh out of Back to the Future) secluded upstairs, trapped in a f*cked-up Stockholm Syndrome fugue state of obedience. This devious discovery is starkly opposed to Fool’s other major finding, a hostage named Roach (Sean Whalen in a role Hilary Swank reportedly auditioned for) who eventually leads him to a fetid cavern below the stairs populated with roving zombielike ghouls who’ve been trapped for only god knows. Through it all, Fool designs on saving Alice and copping the goodman gold for his family.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Aside from some pretty dubious early-90s fashion choices (yeah, you Ving!), there’s still a lot to love about this undefinable horror curio. The first has to start with the dope-ass premise, one that has since been appropriated and subverted in such great flicks as Don’t Breathe, such not-so-great ones like Bad Samaritan, and all the ones in between. That is, protagonistic criminals that into the home of even more craven maniacs, only to stumble upon an even darker and more deleterious secret held by the homeowners. Here, Craven allocates the sinister premise as an excuse to turn the story and the single-location setting into a harrowing hide-and-go-seek haunted mansion ride that devolves into a fiendish charnel house with each descending floor. The movie touches on so many horror subgenres, from the psychological dread Alice feels after being trapped for long and the slashing carnage of Leroy’s gorily gouged-out torso to the undead malnourished zombie types that wander aimlessly below the floors and stairs and the sick and twisted incestuous S&M dynamic between Mommy and Daddy (Tarantino stole that f*cked up gimp suit from this flick right? Rhames as well!) It’s precisely here though – in this space of genre-defying fright, and the mold-shattering farrago of horror tropes and tenets mashed into one delectable delight, that holds first and foremost when watching PUTS in 2021. 

In terms of specifics, the scenes that hold up the most tend to be the ones set in the basement, below the stairs in the dim and dirty foundation of the house, and the narrow walls of the house. The first scene where Fool inspects the basement is an absolute masterclass in deliberately paced tension, suspense, ensorcelling set design by Bryan Jones (This Is Spinal Tap, House Party), and sound mixing to create blood-boiling exhilaration. The scene starts slow, picks the pace, and speeds up just as a viewer’s heart rate does by the end as Fool makes a deadly discovery. Later, when Fool is taken inside the walls by Roach to evade Daddy, the dynamic camerawork darting through the narrow corridors is truly exciting, almost playing like a fun Goonies-like adventure, especially when the Robeson’s Rottweiler is sent flying down a makeshift slide created by Roach. The scenes also have a distinct hide-and-go-seek vibe that makes the interior wall scenes truly fun, especially for younger viewers identifying with Fool. Likewise, the f*cked-up finale in which Fool descends into the primordial pit of devolved and flesh-desiccated human captives, wading through a dungeon-like environment festooned with hanging skeletons as growling, lumbering ghouls close-in on him, really stand up and stand out when seen nowadays. The shite still feels fresh, frightening, and unpredictable, with Fool leading the way.

Indeed, the performance by Brandon Adams as Fool is exceptional. Even when Leroy dies 35-minutes in, Fool impressively carries the rest of the film by showing a range of dramatic acting moments, humorous quips and one-liners, physically-taxing stunts, and remains likable throughout the process. That he does, deserving the utmost credit for making PUTS such a compelling story. Honestly, without such a performance, the rest of the film would not resonate, no matter how histrionic Mommy f*cking Dearest cranks up the violence in the end. 

Of course, PUTS lasting legacy just might be the trenchant social commentary Craven was tapping into in the subtext of the film. Fool being forced into robbery because rich and greedy landlords buy up all the land, condemn them, pocket the cash, and rebuild elsewhere, is a stark eye-opening reality that’s only been exacerbated in the past three decades. The film happily ends with Fool rightfully putting the money and power back into the hands of the gentrified Black community, a quixotic fix to a problem that is unfortunately not so easy to achieve in reality. Still, Craven has rarely been socially conscious in his horror films and has his heart in the right place here in a way that has only been proven witch each passing year. Horror with a heart as only Craven can do!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Not that we favor remakes or reboots much around here, but what blows nowadays is the failed attempt by Craven to mount some sort of continuation of the story. Craven expressed interest in having the movie remade and even approached F. Javier Gutierrez (Rings, Before the Fall) at one point about helming the project. There was also some interest in possibly turning the film into a TV series with Craven’s blessing. If Craven felt strongly enough that the material was worth mining even further on the big or small screen, then it sucks that we weren’t afforded the chance to see what the master of horror might have done with said project.

THE VERDICT: 30 years later, The People Under the Stairs continue to inhabit a freakishly original corner in the cemetery. As only Craven can do, the film fuses a manic maelstrom of horror genres – slasher, psychological, shut-in, etc. – centered on an extremely rootable main character – to create a genuinely unique horror experience where carnage and claustrophobia marry and birth a f*cked-up lovechild of inescapable dread. Never mind the money it earned, Craven deserves posthumous flowers on his grave for digging up The People Under the Stairs and reinforcing it with such durable resources. 

RIP legend, you’re the best!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.