The People Under the Stairs

Movie Information

In Brief: The Thursday Horror Picture Show's second film in their tribute to Wes Craven is his often-overlooked and undervalued (and most political) film, The People Under the Stairs (1991). Because of their already-somewhat-outsider — even disreputable — status, it’s not that uncommon to find horror films pretty fearless in what they’ll explore in terms of subtext. Distributors and studios don’t care all that much about what’s in these films (much less what they might be saying), as long as they end up with a movie that can be promoted on its horror content and has the content to back it up. The People Under the Stairs is unusual, in that its “transgressions” are more text than subtext — and Craven stated outright at the time that the film was his response to the Reagan years. What is surprising is that almost no one seems to have gotten it. Even stranger to me is that I don’t see how you can miss it. The greedy, ultra-“Christian,” racist villains of the piece (Everett McGill and Wendie Robie) are clearly meant to evoke the Reagans — albeit in horror-film form and considerably exaggerated for that purpose. In other words, this is allegory.
Genre: Horror / Political Satire
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter
Rated: R



The film carries this over into the Bush (Mk. 1) years — showing the “people under the stairs” (imprisoned children the couple kidnapped, then mutilated and kept out of sight when they didn’t live up the couple’s ideals) being entertained and kept quiet with a TV showing the bombing of Bagdad during Desert Storm while the film’s soundtrack plays Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It doesn’t get much more pointed — or more angry. This doesn’t mean that the film forgets to be horrific in the usual sense — only that the horror trappings are being used to make a point.




Visually — and this includes the production design — the film is striking. The house in which most of the action takes place is among the creepiest — and most improbable — in the history of old dark houses. It has almost TARDIS qualities in that there’s no way the exterior matches up with the cavernous interior. And that interior is a singularly twisted creation — like a cross between the one in Lew Landers’ The Raven (1935) and a Max Fleischer cartoon. At the same time, there are intimations of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984) in some of the individual details. It’s like a little world of the mind — an unhealthy mind.




Aspects of the film are in the “splatstick” mode, which works nicely because you never know when the comedy is going to turn deadly serious. It’s also a nice change to see a movie that actually gives its child star, Brandon Adams, the top billing he deserves. There are imperfections to be sure, especially in the make-up for the title characters. There’s no way to gloss over the fact that it’s cheesy and cheap, but it’s a small price to pay for such a ballsy work.

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The People Under the Stairs Thursday, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville, hosted by Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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One thought on “The People Under the Stairs

  1. Me

    I use to love this movie when I was a kid, I didn’t realize it had the couple from Twin Peaks in it.

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