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 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. (See John Boorman’s 1977 film Exorcist II: The Heretic to understand what happens when that horror content isn’t there.) Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991) 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). The film carries this over into the Bush 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. Of course, there has to be a plot to hold this together, and that comes in the form of a 13-year-old black kid called Fool (Brandon Adams), who has been talked into helping rob the house of his family’s landlords (the Reaganesque couple) to pay for a cancer operation for his mother. What he doesn’t know, of course, is that getting into the house and getting out of it are two different things. This mix creates a heady horror film (virtually a horror-movie fairy tale) punctuated with occasional outbursts of dark-humored slapstick and all centered on an angry socio-political theme. It is one of high points of Craven’s very checkered career.
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