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August 4, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #83 - The People Under The Stairs

It's taken me a long time to get to this point I'm at right now; the point at which I finally make sense of my feelings regarding The People Under The Stairs.  I remember the film becoming a staple of my middle school years in the early '90s, but I never remembered really caring that much about what the movie itself actually was.  Like The Blob and Clownhouse before it, this was a movie that I watched specifically because it was a "scary" movie, and I didn't really take much time to think about why I liked it so much it.  I knew that it was the kind of movie I wanted to like - I just didn't know why.

The problem is, I never really stopped to think about it after its initial run in the household ended.  I remember being stoked due to nostalgia when it hit DVD, and I snatched up a copy and watched it with another decade under my belt...but the movie kind of slipped away from me again.  So now I'm here - 20 years after the movie was first released - and there's only one word going through my head to explain the whole situation.

That's right, fool.  And I don't mean fool as in "Hey, The Mike, you were a fool for forgetting how much you enjoyed The People Under The Stairs" - I mean fool as in Fool, the film's 13 year old hero.
Fool - who must figure that his nickname is less insulting than his real name (Poindexter) - joins his mother's friend Leroy (Ving Rhames in da house!!!!!) in an attempt to rob the rich landlords who are evicting them from their apartment.  But things get hairy pretty quickly, as Leroy and his accomplice are killed by the man and woman who own the home (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), leaving Fool to uncover the secrets of the old house and those who live in it.  
The film quickly establishes just how crazy these people are (If a full body leather BDSM suit doesn't scream "dysfunctional", I don't know what does!) which means that Fool is quickly thrown into the role of survivor.  The character sees the craziness around him, but this kid from "the ghetto" rarely blinks in the face of adversity.  Director (and old friend of FMWL) Wes Craven is making a statement about the resolve of the people who live in this low income neighborhood throughout the film, and Fool quickly becomes an honest to goodness hero who represents his people.
Though Brandon Adams - who would go on to co-star in kid sport flicks The Sandlot and The Mighty Ducks - stars, the role of Fool seems like one that would be written for someone like Bruce Willis.  In fact, Fool is kind of a early teen version of John McClane, using his surroundings to maneuver around the diabolical couple with the help of their abused daughter (future Escape from L.A. co-star AJ Langer) and one of their sons, Roach (Sean Whalen, most famous to me for that Aaron Burr/peanut butter/milk commercial directed by Michael Bay).  Roach is not the only son, of course, because there's still those pesky folks under the stairs to deal with.
Truthfully, there are times that I forget there are people under the stairs in The People Under the Stairs.  That sounds like a problem - generally the title characters of your horror movie should matter in the plot - but the battle between Fool and the ridiculously over the top couple is so much fun that I don't even care that we only get random glances of the creatures that look so menacing. As part of my repeated forgettings of the film, I even forgot what exactly these pale savages were.  I think there was a part of my brain that thought they were zombies, which is just quite wrong.
In my heart, I can't stop wondering why us horror fans don't talk about The People Under The Stairs more often.  My brain knows that it's not really scary and the plot is scattered all over the place and it's kind of over-the-top, but reuniting with it has me convinced that we all underestimate this one too much.  The bottom line for me is that this is a dark adventure with a unique story and one heckuva hero - even if he is a 13 year-old kid from the ghetto.  Craven has never made a film that didn't have a few lulls and some poor choices in the plot, but I think The People Under the Stairs is probably the film from him that leaves me most satisfied.
So yeah, maybe this isn't an all around horror classic but - for the third straight decade - I can't help feeling like it's a friggin' blast to watch.  I suppose it's not the most substantial Midnight Movie of the Week I've ever picked, but I'm darn glad that I'm finally putting some thoughts on this one to (cyber) paper, because I don't want to forget about it again.  Fool, wherever you are, I salute you. You're one of the true heroes in horror history, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.


Marvin the Macabre said...

I only watched this one once, shortly after it was released on video. I remember thinking that it was okay at the time, and then the more I thought about it the less I liked it. But now I'm thinking I should give it another go.

I do agree that Fool was the best part of the movie. I also remember being stoked that his sister was in Summer School, which I watched upwards of 30 times back in the day.

BTW, my verification word is "ballnest," which is now my favorite euphemism for scrotom.

Enbrethiliel said...


I really liked it the first time I saw it (back in uni), and on a blog that no longer exists, even wrote a review that compared it to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and set it firmly in the Gothic fiction tradition.

When I saw it again last year, however, it felt a bit flat. =/ I don't know whether it's because the plot really is silly, or because I wasn't watching with sympathetic friends (but with an older relative who kept walking in and out of the room and saying, "I can't believe that crappy movie is still on!"), or because Wes Craven's moral about who's really to blame for the poverty in the ghetto just didn't stand up . . . but The People under the Stairs isn't something I'll be watching again.

But don't worry. I still like Fool and will salute him with you any time. =)

R.D. Penning said...

Crap... now I really need to revisit this one.

therealphoenixanew said...

When I was in high school, my friends and I used to sit in the stairwell in the mornings before the bell rang, and someone started calling us "The People Under The Stairs" and it just stuck. I never knew it was from a horror movie. Guess that means I have to watch this one now.

Alexandra said...

I remember being terrified of this movie. Then the People Under the Stairs were nice and just misunderstood. I guess that's what gets me about Craven, he makes the most sentimental horror movies EVER.

The Mike said...

Hmm, interesting to see that this one has a mixed response....which I can totally understand.

Marvin - I don't think this one has a ton of staying power - as evidenced by my repeated forgettings of it - so I see your point. Maybe it just caught me in the right moment this time.

E - Y'know, the silliness and the moral are a little off. But I mean...Fool Rules the School. I think.

Syrin - Do it! And at least you weren't confused with zombies. I almost feel like I need to offer the people of this movie an apology.

Alexandra - Interesting to think of Craven as sentimental, but I think you're on to something there. His best moments, to me, are the ones that really empower his characters and let them break from what we expect - and The People are a good example of that.