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A Fool’s Dream: Celebrating Wes Craven’s ‘The People Under the Stairs’

A Wes Craven joint that doesn't get nearly enough love.

By MovieBabblePublished 3 years ago 3 min read
Universal Pictures

Thirty years ago we were treated to Wes Craven’s deliriously entertaining socially-conscious horror roller coaster, The People Under the Stairs. When we talk about Craven’s oeuvre, the usual suspects are mentioned: the exploitation classic, The Last House on the Left; the fantastical slasher where murders transpire in the dreamscape, A Nightmare on Elm Street; and finally, the 90’s meta-fictional deconstruction of the slasher genre, Scream — as well as its subsequent lesser sequels.

There are also titles that are criminally underrated, such as The Serpent and the Rainbow and New Nightmare. Even the lesser titles are worth seeing, such as Shocker and the tender, Music of the Heart — a film that proved Craven could tackle stories of a more sentimental nature, deprived of any bloodshed.

Craven’s filmography was also fraught with studio interference. Even A Nightmare on Elm Street, which is a near-perfect film, suffers from a lackluster jump-scare finale, due to producer Bob Shaye’s insistence. Craven’s original vision of Deadly Friend was a family-friendly, science fiction thriller, but the studio forced him to add copious amounts of gore, ruining what could otherwise have been a sweet little movie.

Most infamously, there is 2005’s Cursed. Normally the notion of a werewolf wolf film helmed by Craven is something to be excited about. Unfortunately, in a complete reversal from the studio interference behind Deadly Friend, the studio (including the notoriously monstrous Weinstein brothers) forced drastic cuts, taking out the gore and turning the film into compromised PG-13 fluff. To add insult to injury, they also replaced Rick Baker’s practical effects, the guy behind the incredible special effects from An American Werewolf in London, with CGI nonsense.

Cursed is one of those films whose potential is rightfully mourned by horror aficionados — not to mention Craven himself. It truly could have been something special.

Fortunately, The People Under the Stairs received relatively little studio inference. It’s a jewel of Craven’s filmography. A strange film, both funny, creepy, and even at times, heartfelt.

It’s also at times quite an angry film. Though the film was inspired by a real-life event — in which the police, reacting to a burglar report, accidentally stumbled onto a room in which the owners had locked up their children and were never allowed to come out — it’s also Craven’s tirade against Reaganomics, and the exploitation of the lower class.

The eighties saw a transformation of the American zeitgeist. Fervent loyalists to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy would run the government. Let the yuppies do their things, reduce governmental regulations. Things become more equal if people just followed their natural self-interests. Eventually, if you let these people make enough, it will trickle down to the rest of us.

Obviously, this didn’t happen. The result was tragically predictable; the rich got richer, the poor got screwed over. The 2008 economic crisis was partly a consequence of this flawed philosophy, which is still to this day, highly defended and presented as something virtuous.

Craven saw this and turned his objection into a delightful horror fable. Sometimes the rich eat the poor, though most of the time, they generate a system where the poor are too busy eating each other. In The People Under the Stairs, we witness such a system of exploitation and oppression.

The monsters in this story, are two sibling landlords called the Robeson’s (modeled unsurprisingly after Ronald and Nancy Reagan), owners of several poorly maintained apartment buildings in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood. Despite the poor situation of the tenants, the landlords reap the benefits, jacking up prices and kicking out any tenants who stand in their way.

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