Monday, June 22, 2009

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Here we've got one of the few Wes Craven films I can actually enjoy. The first Nightmare on Elm Street is pretty good and then we got The Hills Have Eyes and even parts of Swamp Thing. Last House on the Left, well, I can take it or leave it. Some parts are shocking and some parts are silly and none of those parts really come together in an acceptable way. In the 90s he started changing up things a little with his meta-Freddy picture, New Nightmare and that one that changed the face of horror for the next decade, the one written by the "Dawson's Creek" guy called Vampire in Brooklyn or something. Also, Music of the Heart I heard was pretty damned terrifying from what I heard, so I'll check that one out and let you know. He led off the 90s with a feature that promised to be a movie about people living under some stairs, called The People Under the Stairs, and boy did it deliver on its promise.

I enjoyed this movie even if I'm still not sure if its very good or not. We got two despicable villains in the form of Everett McGill (who was the werewolf turned preacher in Silver Bullet) and Wendy Robie who played June Reed in that one episode of "Baywatch" and was also married to McGill's character in "Twin Peaks". In this movie, they live together as husband and wife, "mommy" and "daddy", and also, we learn later, brother and sister. Their home looks innocent enough from the outside. In reality (movie reality, I mean) it's a heavily fortified fortress, windows locked from the outside, steel doors, unbreakable windows, and a dog named killer or poochy or something that is fed spare parts of the people Daddy kills (McGill, in case you forgot). Oh, and they got some people locked in the basement and under the stairs.

Anyway, this daddy guy is a rich son of a bitch but he's no Daddy Roebuck. I don't remember a scene with Daddy Roebuck slicing up a hanging victim and eating parts of his organs as he works and then feeding what's left to the people living under his stairs, but it's been a long time since I've seen Annie, maybe I was traumatized and blocked it out. Daddy (McGill, not Roebuck) is the richest guy in town, a slum lord who evicts his tenants if they're three days late on rent. Ordinarily, I would think this illegal but it's printed right there on the lease so those families got not excuse. Well, one such family has a mother dying of cancer unless she can get enough money to have the cancer removed. They also got a young son named "fool" (played by Brandon Adams) who is talked into a scheme by his sister's boyfriend (Ving Rhames) that involves breaking into Daddy's house and robbing him of his gold coin collection, the knowledge of which has somehow been making its way around the gossip circuit. Fool teams up with Leroy (Ving) and some "slippery" white guy named Spenser. First they case the house. Then they send Fool to the door posing as a boy scout selling cookies and, when that doesn't work, Spenser poses as the gas man. When he doesn't come out, Fool and Leroy break into the house, there are people under the stairs, a big dog, little girl named Alice, more people under the stairs, mommy and daddy, gimp sighting (which predates Ving Rhame's Pulp Fiction), etc. Maybe I am profiling a character in a movie here but I gotta say I found it unbelievable that Ving's character wasn't packing. Racist.

Strangely enough, this movie doesn't work because of how cartoonish it is but at the same time, the cartoonishness is one of the big reasons I enjoyed it. Daddy is too oafish to be scary. The guy gets hit in the head more times than Yosemite Sam. It's an incredibly enjoyable performance by McGill. He runs around in an all black leather, including mask, S&M suit firing his shotgun into the walls. This house is full of nooks and crannies and secret passageways inside the walls. Fool, after getting locked inside, befriends a young girl named Alice who is supposedly the daughter of mommy and daddy, but if that's the case, the apple fell pretty fucking far from the tree. This is a young girl (played by AJ Langer) who has never even been outside. Mommy and daddy abuse the shit out of her, mostly off camera except the time when mommy dumped her in a bath of scalding water to rid her of sinfulness or some shit like that. Another time, she is hung up by her wrists in the attic, for what was probably days. An embroidered picture hangs in her bedroom with the old saying "A child should never be seen or heard" or something like that which is actually a likely perversion of the original saying. When mommy and daddy learn that fool is running around in the walls all daddy can think is that he's going to "make it" with Alice. Oh, and there's another kid running around in the walls without a tongue (mommy and daddy cut it out) who used to be one of the people under the stairs but is now referred to as "the thing in the walls", called Roach. I guess he's the requisite mutant "we thought was bad that's actually good because even though he shrieks a lot it's only because he can't talk since his tongue was cut out even though when he shows his "tongue" it just looks like they burned it a little or something" with a heart of gold. Also, I'm sorry for calling him a mutant.

This is a pro-child type of picture. I mean, they endure a lot of shit but they're pretty tough and, in the case of Fool, almost too tough. This kid becomes an action hero about halfway through. When he first enters the house, he's terrified of everything. Later, he's dropping bricks on Daddy's head and punching him in the balls. At one point, Daddy sets his killer dog loose in the walls and Fool says "I'm sick of running" and turns around to fight the dog only realizing too late that this is a dog trained to kill and with a taste for human flesh on top of that. They even give him a few one liners to punctuate his acts of heroism but they were so unmemorable that you'll just have to see the picture to learn what they are. So, he wasn't always a believable protagonist. Contrast him with the usually tough Ving Rhames who starts off all bad ass and shit ("what if the President made me Secretary of Pussy?" during a game of "what if?") but, later, is reduced to a cowering shell of his pretend self, even, at one point, forcing Fool to find a new hiding spot, "this one's full."

I guess my thing is I expected this to be more scary than funny, but it's just the opposite and almost not scary at all. The house is a marvelous creation. Even the appliances (stoves, furnaces, etc) lead to hidden passages. The people under those stairs are scarier when they are unseen and, thankfully, for the most part they are. I did like how one was watching a news report of the first Iraq war. I'm sure there's a statement in there somewhere. This movie suffers from a severe case of split personality disorder. On the one hand, we got a kids movie; child protagonist, a girl named Alice, a weird house full of hidden passages, etc, cartoonish violence, over the top villains, a mother that needs money for an operation, children wise beyond their years, etc. On the other hand, we got horrific acts of real violence, gun shot violence, acts of cannibalism, implied incest, child abuse, dog on man violence, man on dog violence, f-bombs, etc.

So, I don't know, I found it consistently entertaining mainly because of how insane it was. Most adults probably won't jive to it and most kids shouldn't be allowed anywhere near it. Obviously, there's a message in here about ghetto life and how slum lords are all just incestuous, S&M loving, cannibalistic mother fuckers. I'm not big on message films but this one is fairly decent, so I guess give it a look.


elmo said...

I saw some of this as a kid and remember the cartoony mask he wore. Time to give it another view.

Megmo Eskimo said...

I like Wes Craven...really enjoyed the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' films for their tongue-in-cheek humor. So I remember being excited to see this when it came out. But alas, I was rather disappointed at how boring it was.

brian said...

Boring is not an adjective I would ever use to describe this one. I guess you must have grown up in a similar house of horrors or something so all of this mayhem must have been old hat?

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie on tv when i was maybe 11 or 12 and had a really creepy basement where the laundy was. I do not remember what happened in this movie because i think i blocked it out but refused to do laundry for like 3 weeks cause it scared me so much. Still scares me to when i think about it now. Shit i really cant remember why it scared me so much but i dont think i will be heading to the basement anytime soon.