"The People Under the Stairs"
Exploiting and Serving the Young
The People Under the Stairs (1991) Starring Brandon Adams, A. J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Everett McGill, and Wendy Robie. Written and directed by Wes Craven.
Wes Craven played some role in the writing of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. I always thought that film might be intended as a child-abuse allegory, with Freddy Kruger representing an abusive father. Craven had a much larger role in making The People Under the Stairs, and this film makes it clear Craven had child-abuse on his mind, as well as Republican economic policies, race relations, censorship, and other issues. Never before or since has a horror film tackled so many political issues.
At the center of this film is a family. The father (Everett McGill) and mother (Wendy Robie) bear a physical resemblance to Republican icons Ronald and Nancy Reagan. They are business owners who show contempt for the poor neighborhood they bleed of money. They abuse their daughter (A. J. Langer).
Oh yeah — and they abduct people whom they keep in their basement. Langer explains at one point that her Reaganesque parents wanted a son as well as a daughter, so they kept abducting boys. Since none of the boys pleased these parents, each unsatisfactory boy was banished to the basement. McGill and Robie are clear examples of that "strict father" mentality George Lakoff always talks about.
The hero of this film is 13-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams), a black kid in a ghetto. He and a few others who face eviction decide, in a desperate move to raise rent money, to burglarize their landlord, who happens to be McGill. They have no idea what awaits them in that house.
Before long, Adams is trapped in the house alone, his partners in crime dead. Much of the film follows his attempts to maneuver around the villains and escape from the house. Yes, it's Die Hard meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Adams forms an alliance with Langer. She fears the consequences of this rebellion against her parents, but she bravely assists him anyway. Finally, he escapes. She doesn't. Once Adams is safe, he calls the police. Needless to say, when the police inspect the house, they find nothing. McGill and Robie have managed to clean up the blood and hide all incriminating evidence. Isn't that always the way?
Then Adams does something amazing. An older protagonist in a movie might do this and it wouldn't surprise anyone. But fictional teenagers never did this before. Adams returns to the house to rescue Langer! After escaping with his life, he returns to this house of horrors to rescue the girl. This teenager isn't just a protagonist; he is a hero. Older movie-goers have gotten to see themselves as heroes in movies since Hollywood began, but children and teenagers have mostly been left out.
Langer gets to be heroic, too. After so many years of abuse, after accepting her victim-role for so long, she finally fights back against these villains. One thing I didn't like about this: she only fights aggressively after Adams informs her McGill and Robie are not her "real" parents. They abducted her as an infant. Only after learning this does she feel free to fight back against them. Craven implies it would be less acceptable to strike back at blood relatives, even parents as sadistic as these.
During one confrontation, Robie scolds her girl's disobedience, and Langer replies, "You're not my mother. You never were." As though this were needed to justify her resistance.
The film has other problems. Craven does not really make a statement about child-abuse so much as he exploits it for cheap entertainment. There are suggestions that McGill is abusing Langer sexually as well, and sadly enough, this is played for laughs. In fact, throughout the film, Craven's attempts at humor undercut the film's ability to be taken seriously about anything.
The film stretches credibility with the villains loading their house with booby traps and gadgets we might expect in the lair of a James Bond villain. The special effects are sometimes cheesy: in one scene, we see a severed hand that is so obviously rubber, viewers will feel insulted rather than grossed out.
But the young protagonist acting heroically makes The People Under the Stairs a rare find.