In the right hands, the hor­ror gen­re can be a potent tool for social and polit­i­cal cri­tique. Wes Craven has shown an under­stand­ing of this from his ear­li­est days as a hor­ror film­mak­er: both Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes are dri­ven by the clash between two groups of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent class­es. However, the most pow­er­ful exam­ple of this kind of cri­tique in Craven’s work might be The People Under The Stairs, a film that rivals A Nightmare On Elm Street as his most inven­tive and unique work.

TPUTS-posThe People Under The Stairs has a fairy­tale-style setup: Fool (Brandon Adams) is a ghet­to kid des­per­ate to get some mon­ey to take care of his sib­lings and his ail­ing moth­er. He falls in with Leroy (Ving Rhames), an ambi­tious thief who plots to rob the old man­sion of the land­lords who prey on Fool and his neigh­bors.

Unfortunately, they dis­cov­er that the land­lords, known only as Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie), are more than finan­cial blood­suck­ers. In fact, they are a pair of creepy can­ni­bals with dark fam­i­ly secrets and a host of sim­i­lar­ly can­ni­bal­is­tic sub­hu­mans liv­ing in their cel­lar. Fool finds help in the form of evil couple’s daugh­ter Alice (A.J. Langer) but he’ll have to grow up in a hur­ry to tri­umph over his resource­ful and cru­el foes.

TPUTS-01The People Under The Stairs was a hit dur­ing its orig­i­nal release and remains one of Craven’s most impres­sive works. A big part of its endur­ing appeal lies in his clev­er script, which mix­es Brothers Grimm and shock-hor­ror ele­ments with an point­ed, effec­tive cri­tique of how the wealthy prey on the dis­ad­van­taged and how mid­dle class atti­tudes are often a cov­er for the cru­el­ty and hypocrisy of those who espouse them. It’s pret­ty heady stuff for an ear­ly ‘90s hor­ror film and Craven admirably nev­er pulls his punch­es in putting the­se ideas across.

Better yet, the ambi­tious themes work in lock­step with the thrills in The People Under The Stairs. Once the film gets to the house, Craven packs the sto­ry­line with plen­ty of cat-and-mouse sus­pense and bru­tal skir­mish­es leav­ened with the occa­sion­al bit of dark humor. They become exten­sions of his themes par­tic­u­lar­ly in the sec­ond half, where it is revealed that some of its mon­sters still retain a core of human TPUTS-02decen­cy worth sal­vaging. Craven’s direc­tion of it all is con­fi­dent­ly paced and styl­ish with­out being fussy, nice­ly using Sandi Sissel’s shad­owy cin­e­matog­ra­phy and a shiv­ery score from Don Peake to set the mood.

Most impor­tant­ly, Craven keeps his dark­ly fan­ci­ful tale ground­ed with a nice mix­ture of per­for­mances. Adams and Langer make a hero­ic team you can root for, play­ing the hor­ror for real but find­ing a kind­ness and warmth amid­dy the chaos that the audi­ence can invest in. Conversely, reunit­ed Twin Peaks cast­mates Robie and McGill make a deli­cious­ly over-the-top vil­lain team: she hits some effec­tive notes of Mommie Dearest-style mater­nal mon­strous­ness while McGill comes on like a homi­ci­dal vari­ant of Wile E. Coyote, ter­ri­fy­ing but capa­ble of hilar­i­ous slap­stick at the same time. Also wor­thy of note are Rhames in an ear­ly role as a manip­u­la­tive hus­tler, Sean Whalen as the kindest of the house’s “mon­sters” and Kelly Jo Minter as Fool’s pro­tec­tive but overex­tend­ed sis­ter.

In short, The People Under The Stairs is a key title that must be con­sid­ered in any overview of Wes Craven’s work. It deliv­ers all the chills you could want while show­ing an impres­sive amount of imag­i­na­tion at all times and a social con­scious­ness that gives the film an unex­pect­ed but wel­come res­o­nance.