The People Under the Stairs - 1991
Written & Directed by Wes Craven
Wes Craven was one of the definitive horror directors of the exploitative 70s and the slasher franchise 80s. By the late 80s and early 90s, his work was seen to have fallen off, before he rehabilitated his image with the self-aware Scream series. Nevertheless, right smack in the middle of his "off" period, he dropped one of his most clever films ever; The People Under the Stairs.
Fool is a young black teen. In fact, it's his thirteenth birthday. His dream of becoming a doctor seems an impossible (albeit understandable) one, given his ailing mother and inner city circumstances. Leroy, his sister's boyfriend takes advantage of Fool's desperation to recruit him for a little B&E work, targeted against the corrupt landlord who just served the family with eviction papers. Fool's scouting proves inadequate (with him posing as an actual Scout), so their team leader gives it another try, posing as a meter reader. When he doesn't return, and the lady of the house leaves it, Leroy insists that they head in to make sure they're not getting cheated out of their share of the booty.
What initially seemed suspicious becomes increasingly strange. The house is filled with numerous security measures designed not simply to keep people out of the house, but to keep someone in as well. While Leroy investigates upstairs, Fool checks out the basement. As if it wasn't bad enough finding their partner dead on the floor, what had been strange noises within the house are now revealed to be, something or someone living penned up behind the walls of the basement.
When the homeowners return, it becomes a race for survival for Leroy and Fool. Well, mostly Fool.
I really don't want to summarize any more because there are so many unexpected twists and turns along the way. It's far from the movie that I expected from the title or the descriptions that I've read. Fool is a strong, intelligent and brave character who never resorts to horror film stupidity. In the third act, he makes a choice that appears, well, foolhardy, but he is more brave and thoughtful in his approach than we're used to within genre conventions.
That being said, it's entirely possible to enjoy the film as a fun and tense nightmare adventure and that's how I recommend one approach it. It may have more to say than most overt political satire, but it never forgets to prioritize the fast-paced survival horror. As a study in film making, The People Under the Stairs feels like a product of its time, but as social commentary, it feels fresher and more necessary than ever.