My Top 8 Horror Films: The People Under the Stairs (1991)
A childhood favorite of mine, Wes Craven’s comedy horror film received renewed interest when Jordan Peele cited it as an influence for Get Out. Thus, it has gotten some writing and analysis lately regarding its Black protagonist/cast and progressive use of gentrification/racism/capitalism as a horror element. I’d forgotten about it for a while. I remembered why it stuck out to me all those years ago when I re-watched it recently.
The protagonist is a young black boy played by Brandon Adams, of Mighty Ducks (1992) and The Sandlot (1993) fame, named Poindexter “Fool” Williams who fights two insane white landlords who have gentrified various parts of LA and horde vast amounts of wealth in their spooky-ass mansion. Fool’s family is being evicted, and his mother is gravely ill, so he and his sister’s boyfriend attempt to rob said white landlords. What follows is non-stop, fast-paced tension as Fool escapes the labyrinthine mansion while the married couple, brandishing shotguns, BDSM gear, and a nearly unstoppable Rottweiler, follow in pursuit; Fool also encounters the eponymous ‘people under the stairs.’ It’s such a badass movie because the onus of horror and discord is placed upon white people. Of course, there’s all kinds of 90’s shit in there in the fashion, humor, and dialogue.
The part about white people is important. Craven made the uber-fucked up movie The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) three years prior that depicts Haiti as a backwards and superstitious nation. A white man played by Bill Pullman, one of the whitest in fact, encounters scary black people that practice voodoo and make him a zombie. Not a new idea, White Zombie (1932), credited as being the first feature length zombie film, did the same: white people haunted by voodoo and turned into zombies. The use of non-white culture as a horror element is a staple in American cinema. Pet Sematary (1989) and The Shining (1980), both written by Stephen King, use indigenous people’s burial grounds as a basis of horror for white, nuclear families. King uses this tactic often with Thinner (1996) having a white man cursed by Romani people, and his short in Creepshow 2 (1987) having white people hunted down and killed by a “cigar store Indian.” It hasn’t stopped: The Forest (2016) has a white woman venturing into Aokigahara, the infamous forest where many Japanese suicides occur; Skeleton Key (2005) has a white woman haunted by voodoo in Louisiana; The Curse of La Llorona (2019), or ‘Lah Yo-row-nuh’ according to Linda Cardellini’s accent, will inevitably have a white woman, playing a person of color, save Mexicans from themselves. Turistas (2006) and Borderland (2007) have white tourists face the horrors of organ harvesters and narco-cults in Brazil and Mexico, respectively. Sleepaway Camp (1983), Psycho (1960) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) use transphobia, intentional or not, for ‘horrific’ effect. Walk into any Halloween store and you’ll see it’s just a thing white people do: dress up as stereotypes from other cultures because it’s either scary or funny for them. The People Under the Stairs, though written and directed by a white man, flipped the script for me as a child. For once, racial stereotypes of white people were finally used against them for my entertainment!
The white couple engage in: cannibalism, incest, wealth hording, domestic disturbances, racism, class warfare, paranoia, etc. It can be good to just see white people’s bullshit be returned, how the horrific shit they do rings true on too many levels. Thus, you’ll see how it influenced Get Out. Craven said he was, “partially inspired by a news story from the late 1970s, in which two African-American burglars broke into a Los Angeles household, inadvertently causing the police to discover two children who had been locked away by their parents.” It still happens, white people kidnapping others and holding them indefinitely. More than ever. Spoiler: in the movie, they’re defeated at the end.