Jordan Peele’s seminal works, Get Out and Us, have stunned critics and audiences alike through a very basic idea; a strong black lead, with an equally strong anti-trope cast of support characters of colour.
In Get Out’s case, the villain or, given it being a horror movie, the “monster” as it were, came from… well… privileged white people.
But Peele’s work isn’t the first mainstream movie that eschews tropes of a black character being mere fodder for a horror movie villain. In fact, you can trace that lineage all the way back to George A. Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead, as our hero Ben survived the zombie onslaught but in a cruel twist of fate (or Romero using it as a message on societal problems at the time) was gunned down by some good old boys.
In fact, the whole “rich white person harming the community” aspect was visited by Wes Craven back in 1991 with his genre-hopping film The People Under The Stairs.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
The People Under The Stairs focused on a young boy, Fool, played by perennial ’80s child actor Brandon Adams – who you may remember from either Moonwalker, The Sandlot or The Mighty Ducks. Fool lives in ghettos of Los Angeles with his family, making ends meet as best as they can.
Their landlords, The Robesons, have decided to evict those living in the area Fool’s family reside. Fool is then coerced by family friend Leroy (played by Ving Rhames) and Leroy’s associate Spencer into breaking into the Robesons’ house and steal what they have been led to believe is an incredible bounty of treasure.
Leroy tests Fool’s resolve for his family, goading him to be a man to help out the neighbourhood by undertaking this heist. Fool, wanting to be the man of the house, reluctantly accepts.
We discover that this isn’t going to be an easy “jimmy open a window and slide in” style heist. The protection of The Robesons house is incredible, and the pair themselves are a little on the eccentric side.
I kid, I kid. They’re psychotic.
We are utterly spoiled that The Robesons are played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie; both of which are familiar to Twin Peaks‘ fans. Craven’s casting of the two as Mommy and Daddy Robeson tapped into the macabre, unhinged aspects that Lynch had provided us with his cult television series.
In the film, however, their characters have almost no redeeming value to us, the viewer. You see, The Robesons are an incredibly rich family who were born into money as their family made their money through selling cheap coffins and expensive prices, before investing in real estate. If there’s anything cinema has taught us, it’s real estate tycoons are evil.
We’re told that each generation of Robesons who inherited the money and real estate got greedier and therefore more unhinged. Mommy and Daddy are perhaps the most distilled of the family tree. A very small family tree.
Oh did I forget to mention? Yeah, The Robesons are brother and sister. To keep outsiders at bay, the long lineage of the family have married each other – so where greed might make people do strange things, years of inbreeding I would imagine also would be at play.
Just to bring you back to speed; Spencer manages to enter the house but goes missing. Leroy and Fool break into the house where Fool believes they are going to find Spencer, but a paranoid, greedy Leroy believes Spencer was out for himself and instead they should be concentrating on the gold.
They are met by The Robesons trusted rottweiler, who attacks Leroy but Fool manages to escape from. Things turn from bad to worse when The Robesons, who had left the house in a rare moment of socializing, return home. Daddy catches Leroy and shoots him to death. Fool escapes and ends up in the room of Alice, Mommy and Daddy’s prized daughter.
Alice explains that she is one of many children The Robesons have, though she adheres to their strict “see no evil/hear no evil/speak no evil” rules, which we learn shortly afterwards is enforced quite strictly. We also find out later in the movie that Alice and the children aren’t really Mommy and Daddy’s offspring – they were all abducted from their birth parents.
Fool, caught by Daddy eventually, is taken down to meet the children – the titular people under the stairs, who have resorted to cannibalism to survive. We see Leroy being hacked up and fed to the children, while Daddy himself take a liking to longpig…
Fool is saved though by the rebellious child Roach, played by Sean Whalen in one of many gigs he had in the ’90s. We know Roach spoke evil as he shows the stub of his tongue to Fool. He is Alice’s “defender”, as it were – constantly running between the walls of the sprawling Robesons house and asserting himself as Daddy’s nemesis.
Sadly for Fool, Alice and ourselves, Daddy managed to shoot Roach while he is leading Fool away after another visit to Alice’s room. Alice’s punishment is to be scalded in a bath by Mommy, while Roach reveals a gold piece to Fool as they hide in the house’s furnace. The ghetto prophecy was real – there really is buried treasure in that there house. Roach’s final request in a touching scene is for Fool to save Alice before Roach dies from his wound.
We get more of an insight into how batshit crazy Mommy and Daddy are – that their greed has led them to insanity. Mommy thinks that she is justified in the brutal means of disciplining her children while Daddy roams around the property in a BDSM suit to finally capture Fool.
You start to ask questions just how sadistic the Robesons’ are if brother and sister own bondage gear, mutilate children who aren’t their idea of “well behaved” and engage in murder and cannibalism. It’s as if the rich will consume anything they feel will get in the way of their ideals (hmmm… could this be an allegory? I’ll get to that.)
By now, you must know that Fool manages to escape and punish the villains. He does; he releases the children who confront Mommy just before she tries to kill Alice. Mommy runs away and into the knife of Alice, as we cheer for the comeuppance of a real piece of shit. Daddy, however, is blown up as Fool discovers a vault with all the riches he was assured of and then some more.
As the house erupts, the residents of the ghetto The Robesons were trying to evict are met with a shower of gold coins. Alice and Fool embrace as friends, the threat of eviction ceases, money is shared in a pseudo-socialist way and the people under the stairs walk off into the night. I was always worried though about that part – what of their cannibalistic ways?
I referred to The People Under The Stairs in the intro as genre-hopping, given the vast elements throughout Craven’s film. Yes, it is a horror film, steeped with the scares and gore you would associate with a director who helped define horror in the ’80s and then once again with Scream at the turn of the millennia.
But there are other elements at work here. The casting of McGill and Robie added a darkly comedic feel; both characters are completely unhinged yet we don’t ever take them too seriously. This isn’t the shambling threat of a Jason Vorhees or a Michael Myers but a ruthless, filthy rich duo born into wealth from gains that perhaps weren’t ill-gotten, but with all the unscrupulous intentions in the world.
There is also a real fantasy-adventure element throughout the film almost akin to the classic The Goonies. Our hero, Fool, traverses through the catacombs of the cavernous house to find a rumoured cache of gold in order to save his home. In fact, the more you look at both movies, there are certainly some parallels between the two – Roach is to Fool what Sloth is to Chunk being a stark similarity.
It is the themes that Craven has chosen to permeate throughout his film that make it stand out from other horrors of the time. Perhaps it is the societal themes that led to its mixed appreciation upon its release.
Craven’s idea for the film came after seeing a news report of two persons of colour breaking into a home which unintentionally led to police discovering two children locked away. But there’s more to it than that – it shares quite a lot of Romero’s commentary of social issues than a mere police discovery.
The hoarding of wealth in a post-Gulf War America is an aspect that A.V Club’s Noel Murray discusses while summarizing that the film is as much a satire about modern conservatism than just a horror-comedy.
Craven manages to turn the rich, almost aristocratic Robesons into vile, inbred, unhinged deviants. It is the wealth throughout the history of their family that has led to their insanity; their inbreeding a means of safeguarding what they feel is rightfully theirs. By any means necessary, even if it’s a genealogical timebomb.
But the concept also of Mommy and Daddy kidnapping children as their own does make me wonder if this is the final piece on inbreeding in the family. The Robesons that we see do not wish to procreate – could they, therefore, be the greediest of the bloodline? By rejecting what many before them have done, are they purposefully negating the bloodline so they are the final, wealthiest members of the family tree?
In the never-ending pursuit of a child who speaks, hears and sees no evil, is it to make them complicit not only in their unsavoury financial tactics, but to also abstain from inheriting such wealth?
Much like Murray discusses, are Mommy and Daddy so consumed with hoarding that wealth they are willing to die with it?
One could also discuss the race aspect of the film; it is rich, affluent white people who are affecting the downtrodden people of colour in their neighbourhood. Their greed forcing families out of their homes just to make more money to collect with their already obscene wealth.
That, however, could just be a different take on an already established narrative trope. For years, Hollywood has made a point of turning the wealthy developers into the antagonists. Look at The Goonies once again, or Police Academy 6: City Under Siege or a litany of movies that utilize the whole “save the orphanage” archetype.
What made The People Under The Stairs unique was its choice of a protagonist; a young black kid from the ghetto caught up in a dark fantasy world… that just so happens to be California suburbia.
It is almost as if Craven’s use of Fool is that of a right of passage; a boy becoming a man, making mistakes and learning from them. Doing the right thing despite the first intentions of doing something illegal.
Fool is seldom heralded as a horror movie icon, but yet in many ways, he should be. He is there alongside Living Dead‘s Ben and Dawn of the Dead‘s Roger Rockmore as a protagonist that eschews the horror movie norms of the day.
Though admittedly, McGill and Robie steal the show (they are phenomenal in their roles in this) and it’s hard not to focus on them, The People Under The Stairs ensemble cast all come together to create this bold, amusing and ultimately unhinged horror-fantasy that warrants a little more love than it gets.