Family Values


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.

In literature, the role of the fool has often been the naif, the innocent who, through his unsophisticated but earnest behavior exposes the ridiculousness around him.  It was often a way to lambaste the idiots in power right under their noses, since those with narrow and literal views tend not to be attuned to metaphor.  Craven leaves little doubt about the lead character in The People Under the Stairs, naming him "Fool" (ne Poindexter) and placing him in the middle of an allegory about the culture war against an evolving America. Different moments express the way that that culture war applies to race, economics, gender and more.

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.

The house is a maze of secret passages, filled with hidden threats and allies.  Fool's size becomes an asset in negotiating all of the narrow spaces between walls as he hunts for a way out of the house.  The homeowners "Mommy" and "Daddy" (actually sister and brother) pursue Fool and his allies with furious outrage, firing blindly into the walls to kill them.  They're willing to tear their home apart to destroy their perceived invaders; never mind that they lured them there one way or another.  Sound like any tea parties you know?

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.

The People Under the Stairs was kind of a ballsy movie for Craven to make in 1991, but it would be an even ballsier one to make today, assuming he could get it made at all.  There was a trend toward "black" movies in the late 80s and early 90s, but those were most often from African American directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers.  While PUTS isn't strictly "black," it features black leads and deals with themes of social justice.  A big studio wouldn't touch that today unless they hid it in one of their smaller imprints.  If this opened wide in our current cultural climate, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the poor white victims at Fox News would experience psychosomatic stigmata from their sense of crucifixion over the inbred racist villains.

Without going into any more detail about the story (haven't we ALL had about enough of that?), some of the relevant metaphors I found were; the way the rich exploit the poor simply for the sake of having and hoarding wealth, the way religion controls women and girls for its own exploitation, the way that racists dehumanize blacks while dehumanizing themselves, the illusion of wealth as "Liberty" when it's the freeing of that wealth that creates true liberty, the way that America is divided into separate worlds within the same walls, how the rich prey upon the poor then discard them when they've used them up and how the poor are pitted against each other rather than going after their common enemy.  Those that find a way to live freely within the system have their dissent silenced.  That was after the first viewing.  There will certainly be future visits.

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.

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