Wes Craven, who died on Sunday, is best known for A Nightmare on Elm Street, the genre-defining film of the 1980s in which he created Freddy Kruger, and for the self-conscious teen slasher films of the Scream series.
Perhaps his most astonishing film, however – and certainly his most bizarre – is the horror thriller from 1991, The People Under the Stairs.
The narrative involves a gang of hoods in an unnamed ghetto who unwittingly break into the house of notorious neighbourhood slum lords, a brother and sister living as husband and wife (played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill – better known as Nadine and Big Ed from Twin Peaks).
Once inside, 13-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams) discovers that their daughter Alice (AJ Langer) is a virtual prisoner, forced to do slavish labour, brutally “punished” any time she makes a mistake or breaks one of the couple’s three cardinal rules: hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.
Alice, Fool discovers, is simply one in a long line of “disappointments” – children the couple have kidnapped and attempted to raise as “perfect” who are disfigured and relegated to the interstices of the mansion when they do things the couple don’t like.
A mass of disavowed children thus live inside the walls, under the stairs, in the crawl spaces between floors, maimed according to transgression – blinded (seeing evil), ears removed (hearing evil), tongues cut out (speaking evil).
Why is this film, tasteless as it may appear in a post-Fritzl universe, worth re-revisiting?
First, it combines, distils and examines the predominant impulses and thematics of Craven’s oeuvre: the horror lurking within day-to-day America, the ability of groups of individuals (through collective work and love) to overcome oppressive and horrific situations, the inevitably abusive exercise of power over the powerless.
Secondly, as far as popular films go, its generic hybridity is fantastically weird – it plays like a kids adventure film (The Goonies) crossed with a Capraesque fable about haves and have nots crossed with a gruellingly violent horror film.
The whole thing occurs (basically) within a single space, and Craven uses the dimensions of the manor to superb gothic effect – you’ll never look at a random door in an acquaintance’s house the same way again.
Like most of Craven’s films, there’s a subversive element to it – how subversive one can be within a Hollywood economy is a question for another place. It is, essentially, an examination of institutionally and socially embedded horror that at the same time works as a kind of darkly comic fable about middle-Americans trying to keep up with the Joneses.
It is a thoughtful film – both in Craven’s approach to the material and in its engagement with the viewer. It is as savage as the most gory of Craven’s rock and roll horror films, but at the same time, there’s something almost quaintly professorial about it – he was, after all, an English professor – and an elegant simplicity and symmetry, a magnanimity and humanity, that is radically different from the brash films that seem to dominate Hollywood incarnations of the genre today.
Without reverting to reactionary nostalgia, The People Under the Stairs, like all of Craven’s films, shows a deep concern with a contemporary consumer society that often privileges surface and spectacle over more “profound” modes of life/ living.
In honour of Craven, I suggest we take a couple of hours tonight to watch (or re-watch) this most intelligent of his films. And then we can relegate Craven, and the film – like our most treasured jeremiads – to the dustbin of history, sticking them under the stairs where they belong.