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The People Under the Stairs (1991)

February 18th 2016
Intro by Dr Michelle Smith
Guest Speaker / Local Author

Thank you to the Cinemaniacs team for inviting me back, this time to talk about Wes Craven’s subversive 1991 film, The People Under the Stairs. If you’re anything like me, you were deeply saddened by Craven’s passing in August last year. He has given us so many entertaining, smart, and iconic films, some of which it is my pleasure to talk about today. I want focus on two things: first, Wes Craven the auteur director, and aspects from his life that inform some of the key themes in his films. And second, The People Under the Stairs and how it operates as one of Craven’s most allegorical films.

Asked which film features Ving Rhames being fucked up in a basement with a creep wearing a gimp costume, most people would most likely say Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction and, of course, they’d be right. But in People Under the Stairs, released three years earlier, Craven introduced the world to Everett McGill’s leather clad “Daddy,” a sadistic, racist, fundamentalist Christian cannibal who feeds on human misery as much as on human flesh.

This description may sound like the rich and powerful stupid white American men that populate Michael Moore’s documentaries, and this is no accident. Both Moore and Craven share similar progressive political views, and these values constantly emerge in their films.

You may have noticed on Cinemaniacs’ Facebook page a quote by Craven in which he acknowledges that The People Under the Stairs shares commonalities with his first two films, Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. In truth, Craven’s films demonstrate a consistent concern with specific themes and motifs that recur throughout his work.

Consider this portion of the popular bedtime prayer from the early 1700s:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

This three hundred year old prayer—traditionally taught to and recited by children— seems inane and simplistic, yet it plays with highly sophisticated concepts of life and death, mortality and immortality, Heaven and Hell.

For Craven, the prayer reflects his abiding interest in colliding topics of spirituality, death, damnation, and dreams. He uses the prayer in his first film, Last House on the Left, when Mari, aware that her death is immanent, prepares to meet her maker and recites the prayer like a little child. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the prayer largely encapsulates the theme at the centre of the film, where tortured teens are murdered in their sleep. And jumping forward to 2010, Craven calls on the prayer again to supply the title of his second-to-last film, My Soul to Take, in which he adapts his unpublished novel, Noah’s Ark: The Diary of a Madman, which he wrote in 1964. Although My Soul to Take is one of Craven’s lesser works, I like to think that, in adapting his first serious artistic work into one of his last films, his creative journey has effectively gone full circle. In The People Under the Stairs, the prayer makes another somewhat surprising appearance. Used ironically not as a child’s prayer, but as a means to trap a child, it is comically adapted to suit the warped pseudo-religious whims of the film’s incestuous, child-snatching homicidal maniacs.

Like Lynch and Cronenberg, Craven uses his dreams as part of his creative process. While studying psychology at college, he mastered waking himself up after dreaming and writing down what he dreamt. This has no doubt affected his work as a filmmaker as his movies so often disorient viewers as they shift unannounced between dreamscapes and the everyday world of the film. Explaining his dream-life, Craven recalls experiencing vivid nightmares as a child that were partly a psychological response to the trauma of losing his father—who abandoned the family when Craven was three years old, and died the following year from a heart attack—and partly the consequence of growing up in a strict Baptist community in Cleveland, Ohio.

Craven’s local Baptist church subscribed to Calvinist doctrines that taught salvation depended on strict adherence to a set of behavioural principles. Cigarettes, alcohol, secular music, Hollywood films, playing cards, dancing, comics: these and other pleasures were all taboo and considered tools of the devil, used to distract Christ’s elite from their evangelical mission of spreading the gospel and saving souls. Hellfire and damnation were regularly spoken about from the pulpit and more than recruiting souls for Heaven; these sermons were quite literally designed to scare the Hell out of people. The line, “Burn in Hell” which is so often repeated throughout The People Under the Stairs is no doubt inspired by the sort of hellfire and brimstone theology that Craven experienced in his youth. Of course, it also crucially functions as a caustic parody of conservative right wing America.

After High School, Craven went to college in Chicago and graduated with a double degree in psychology and literature. With aspirations of becoming a novelist, he completed a Masters in literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. After graduating, he taught literature at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, and later at Clarkson College in New York. However, Craven soon realised that academia held little interest.

Having watched a lot of European art films in the 1960s, Craven developed a passion for film and purchased his own camera. He started a film society on campus and spent most of his time working with undergraduates making and screening short films. After a year, Craven resigned from his tenure at Clarkson to pursue a career in filmmaking.

It was during Craven’s time at Johns Hopkins that he wrote his Noah’s Ark novel. Discussing the unpublished novel years later with John Wooley, Craven recounts how his manuscript concerns a thirteen-year-old boy with a fractured psyche composed of three distinct personalities that eventually come together to create a person of wholeness. Craven recounts how the boy has “a friend who’s semiferal, living off in some neighbourhood that nobody ever saw, whose parents are basically missing” (29). Reading this description, I cannot help but think of thirteen-year-old Poindexter, otherwise known by his nickname, Fool, in The People Under the Stairs, who becomes friends with the feral boy Roach, living in the walls of the Robeson house.

The People Under the Stairs, like The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Serpent and the Rainbow, was inspired by incidents purportedly taken from real life. The Hills Have Eyes is inspired by the 14th century legend of the Sawney Bean Clan in Scotland who ambushed and fed on the flesh of passing travellers. A Nightmare on Elm Street famously found its inspiration in a couple of stories in the Los Angeles Times reporting on young Asian males who had died in their sleep under mysterious circumstances. And The Serpent and the Rainbow is inspired by the book by anthropologist Wade Davis.

As with A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs was inspired by a newspaper article that captured Craven’s imagination. He recounts how “one day, in the middle class white area of Santa Monica, California, neighbours called the police after seeing a couple of men break into a house. When the policemen arrived, instead of the robbers they found some very pale children who had been locked inside, away from the world, by their parents” (164).

Craven states, “it was just one of those stories that struck me with such irony—everybody feeling that the black people breaking into the house was the worst thing imaginable, and there you have this middle-class, perfect family with a terrible secret, not of having stolen a television set or something, but the life of their own children” (164-5).

This idea of stealing the lives of children has particular resonance for Craven, whose own childhood seemed cut short by divorce and death. Discussing Last House on the Left and his anti-war stance, Craven describes how one of his intentions was to recreate the sort of horrific violence that could be seen on the nightly news with images broadcast from the Vietnam War.

Craven felt genuine rage about America’s youth being shipped off to war to be killed and their lives shattered, and he uses the murders of Mari and Phyllis, and Junior’s suicide, as metaphors for the older generation destroying its youth.

Meanwhile, in The People Under the Stairs, Mommy and Daddy literally steal the lives away from the children they abduct from the neighbourhood. Functioning as the perfect companion piece to Last House on the Left, The People Under the Stairs tells almost exactly the same story, but in reverse so that the killers are no longer home invaders but have been invaded, and so on. Craven also uses the film to reintroduce his protest against war and the sacrifice of youth, including a scene in which a television is screening images of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Craven is effectively protesting the patriarchal white power and privilege that governs America, while also using the war as a metaphor for the more localised race and class warfare taking place between the white and black neighborhoods in the film. On one side are the greedy, corrupt murderous white folks, the Robesons, living in a derelict funeral home symbolic of the moribund state of the nation. On the other are the black folks, victimised, marginalised, ghettoised and criminalised by their white capitalist oppressors. In what some might consider an un-American move, and one that would’ve had him blacklisted in the 1950s, Craven uses his movie to stage a Marxist revolution that sees the overthrowing of old power structures and the redistribution of wealth.

The People Under the Stairs is unfairly considered one of Craven’s weakest films. I beg to differ, as do a great many horror fans. Made for 6 million dollars, in the US the film went on to earn over 24 million and, along with several other Craven creations, developed a cult following. The film’s many socio-political references, along with its fairy tale allusions that include Bluebeard, Alice in Wonderland, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack the Giant Killer, all point to the fact that the film is allegorical. Indeed, the opening shots of The People Under the Stairs pretty much announce that the film is full of symbolism we are invited to interpret. As the camera slowly hovers over various tarot cards, the voices of Fool and his sister are heard, interpreting the images and providing in a very Joseph Campbell sort of way, insight into the story we are about to enter. This is, in my opinion, one of Craven’s strongest and most well realised and mature films, despite the large doses of humour and cartoonish hijinks.

I want to finish with a quick word about the film’s allusions to Victorianism and childhood. Among the ruling class in the Victorian era, it was common for children to be thought of as a species entirely distinct from adults, and domestic spaces were designed to reflect this idea. Like Flowers in the proverbial Attic, children were often confined to their own quarters and not permitted to wander into other parts of the house. They were restricted to bland savory diets very different from the more exotic and sugar-laced indulgences enjoyed by adults. If brought out and paraded in front of guests, they would need to be very quiet and still. Craven also stages most of his action in the Robeson’s house, its American Craftsman architecture and furnishings reinforcing the perverted Victorian family values that the Robeson’s impose on their abductees. While watching The People Under the Stairs, I invite you to pay attention to the various needlepoint pictures hanging on the walls around the Robeson’s house. One such framed needlepoint in Alice’s room has the words “Children should be seen. Not heard,” a phrase typically associated with Victorian childrearing.

The People Under the Stairs may not be Craven’s most well-known film, but it is extremely smart and sophisticated. As you watch the film I encourage you to embrace this not as a run-of-the-mill horror, but as fairy tale, layered with multiple meanings and metaphors.

Work Cited
Wooley, John. Wes Craven, The Man and His Nightmares. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley: 2011.