[NOTE: I was waiting until October to review Mr. Craven’s classic The People Under the Stairs, one of my all-time favorite movies, for my annual horror movie round-up. However, his untimely passing required tribute, so here it is.]
Back in the day, renting a movie at the video store was a gamble. If you rented the wrong thing, you wouldn’t find out until you’d got home, possibly hours later, possibly after the store had closed. It was terrible to find that the money you mowed a lawn or babysat for had gone to a dud, full of boring characters, dumb cliches, and forgettable story. The stakes were high on Friday afternoons after school, so I often agonized in the horror aisle making up my mind, my mom rolling her eyes and yelling at me to come on.
Imagine a time with no online forums, no websites, nothing but the movie reviews in the newspaper, articles in magazines like Fangoria or Starlog, or your friends’ recommendations.
I must have walked past the box for The People Under the Stairs 50 times before I actually picked it up to rent it. Although I look back fondly on the box art now, the somewhat generic design just couldn’t compete with the likes of Pumpkinhead, Deadly Friend, or anything coming out of Full Moon Studios for my money. I finally watched it in about 1996, and thence started a relationship that has lasted to this very day.
I STAND BY MY TWEET.
I’ve talked before about urban horror in the form of Clive Barker’s Candyman and what an interesting and clever deconstruction it was – but doesn’t even come CLOSE to The People Under the Stairs.
The film starts out brilliantly – Ruby is doing a tarot reading for her little brother Poindexter, nicknamed Fool, and we hear hushed voices as Ruby lays out the cards in flickering candlelight, and with them Fool’s destiny. We’re in. The setup is established – Fool and his family live in the projects, at the mercy of slumlords and in need of money for Fool’s mother’s operation. Fool, now the man of the house at 13, is convinced by Ruby’s boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames! In one of his early roles! With hair!) to help him commit a burglary that will net them enough cash to take care of his family.
The plan is to dress Fool like a cub scout and send him to the front door, so he can get in and case the house. What he finds instead is a highly paranoid, racist woman who won’t even let him into the secured house to use the bathroom, and a serious security system.
Once Fool, Leroy, and their friend Spencer gain entry to the house, Shit Gets Weird. So wonderfully, GLORIOUSLY weird! I almost don’t want to go into it in case you are somehow reading this article having NOT seen the film! BUT I AM! So stop reading now. Go read the Candyman article, or… or come back when you’ve seen The People Under the Stairs! The post’ll still be here! Shoo!
As I was saying, TPUTS is brilliant as a horror movie for a lot of reasons. Mr. Craven was inspired by a news article about the police responding to a home invasion, who discovered children locked in a closet, and the story grew from there. A philosopher and teacher first, he didn’t begin making films until he was 30, and he started out making porn. How COOL is that?
Since the main baddies of TPUTS are some crazy-ass white people slumlords who toss around The N-Word with careless abandon and cackle at all the money they have drained from the ghetto, the movie has the feel of a modern fable. For some, THESE are the boogeymen, but they are no less terrifying than knife-wielding maniacs. They take children from the ghetto to raise as their own, but being utterly batshit crazy, no child can live up to their expectations. The children who fail are put into the basement, missing tongues, eyes, or ears, and are fed on human flesh.
And since the movie didn’t know the meaning of the words ‘Over the Top,’ the performances by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as “Daddy” and “Mommy” are MAGNIFICENT.
God how I could go on. A young A.J. Langer, of “My So-Called Life” fame plays Alice, the only girl and only child who has managed to toe Mommy and Daddy’s crazy line. Brandon Adams turned out a brilliant performance as the charismatic, intelligent, and compassionate Fool – I’m surprised to see so few credits under his name on IMDB.
The gimp suit, the attack dog, the dolls, “A man ain’t dead just cause he’s laying there,” and the wonderful, wonderful shouts of ‘GONNA FIND YOUUUUU!!’ interrupted by a brick to the face. GOD how I love this movie.
So here’s to you, Mr. Craven. You knew what scared us, but it was because you knew what scared YOU first. Good horror comes from the heart, and by all accounts you were a wonderfully sweet man with plenty of heart to go around.
Here is a link to Edgar Wright’s touching tribute to Mr. Craven, who perfectly expressed what I have been stumbling and blathering to say.
Farewell, Mr. Craven! We’ll see you in our nightmares!