Wes Craven had a gift for reading the room. He was always in touch with where society was and made his movies accordingly. A Nightmare on Elm Street perfectly married the rise of the 70’s slasher to the bombast of the 80’s. New Nightmare was a bellwether for the ironic self-awareness of the late 90’s upon which Scream then fully capitalized. But looking back, arguably Craven’s most reflective and socially relevant work was The People Under the Stairs.
If you haven’t watched People in the last few years, you may vaguely recall it being about a bizarre brother and sister couple keeping a pack of feral teenagers locked away in their basement. Or since Craven deliberately cast Wendy Robie and Everett McGill together as ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ Robeson, you might remember it as the fourth-strangest episode of Twin Peaks. Either way, you’d be forgiven for wondering how such a wild hodge-podge of cannibalism, leather fetish suits and incest could possibly be that important. Watch it today though, and it becomes apparent Wes Craven was trying to have a conversation much of society wouldn’t catch up with for decades.
The People Under the Stairs is plainly about the marginalization of minorities, class inequality, sexism, the patriarchy, isolationist nationalism and even healthcare. All the topics at the center of today’s rising culture war were highlighted on-screen a quarter-of-century ago in a movie that came and went with little fanfare during a period when horror was in a supposed decline.
Given this degree of prescience, it seems fitting People should begin with a reading of tarot cards.
The reading is for a protagonist called Fool, so-named for the tarot card that represents the blindly ignorant. “Ain’t the stupid kind of fool,” Ruby the reader says, “only the ignorant kind, ‘cause he’s only starting out.” This is Craven’s way of initially addressing the audience and engaging them in what they about to see. It’s not that you’re stupid, it’s that you don’t know any better. Here, let me show you.
Fool, played by Brandon Quintin Adams, is a young black boy living in a Los Angeles ghetto. His mother has cancer and they can’t afford her surgical treatment. On top of this, the entire family is being evicted from their home because the rent is three days past due and there’s a clause in the lease agreement stipulating triple the standard payment when late. This sort of brutal gouging is by design. The landlords, Mommy and Daddy, simply wait for their tenants to fall behind and then evict them in order to bulldoze the property and sell it for office space. It’s a predation scheme all-the-more insidious because the Robesons also happen to own at least one nearby liquor store, giving them the opportunity to simultaneously feed peoples’ desperate addictions and profit from the consequences of them. And profit they do. Mommy and Daddy are sitting upon a mountain of stationary wealth. It’s not even in a bank accruing interest; it’s an actual pile of gold and cash actively collecting dust in the cellar.
This is all just subtext in relation to class inequality. The specifically racial elements are more overt, with Mommy and Daddy dropping the worst of epithets while shooting or attempting to shoot a black man, child, and woman, all unarmed.
While the movie is immediately steeped in these grounded, realistic horrors that millions of people face every day of their lives, the more fantastic horror elements eventually come from the fact that Mommy and Daddy are one-hundred-and-ten percent insane. The latest fruit borne of a family tree with exactly one branch, they’re Cersei and Jamie Lannister by way of Ebenezer Scrooge with a dash of Dahmer. And despite being cruel sadists who literally eat the poor, they view themselves as unfairly persecuted, telling police officers, “It’s as though we’re the prisoners and the criminals roam free.” Mommy and Daddy don’t see themselves as a lunatic fringe of society who have walled themselves off from outsiders. They see themselves as under siege by the undesirable and unclean masses. They’ve fortified their home with padlocks, steel doors and explosives, preventing anyone from getting in or out aside from a stream of adopted boys who each inevitably step out of line and are sent to live forever under the titular stairs.
Mommy and Daddy’s one successful attempt at raising a child, as far as they’re concerned, is their stolen daughter Alice, played by pre-My So-Called Life A.J. Langer. And it’s Alice who really illustrates and drives home the central theme at the core of the movie; See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
This phrase – a reference to Japanese imagery of three wise monkeys covering their eyes, ears and mouth – is repeated and alluded to multiple times. It’s primarily used by Mommy and Daddy as an admonition to remind their unruly children to mind their own business and keep quiet, lest they lose their offending body parts and be locked away. This is a perversion of the maxim’s original meaning, which is a reference to those who would knowingly or unknowingly overlook impropriety.
Both contexts apply to Alice, who has been kept so isolated from the rest of the world she’s literally never seen a black person. When Fool encounters her and asks how the People came to live Under the Stairs, Alice says “Some saw things they weren’t supposed to, others heard too much, others talked back.” This response represents the bastardized interpretation of the three wise monkeys,while the original interpretation is represented seconds later in her assertion that the boys down below “get flashlights and food of some kind. I suppose they’re happy in their own way.”
“Not the stupid kind of fool, only the ignorant kind...”
Alice’s ignorance is absolutely forgivable as she herself is a victim of horrifying abuse, bludgeoned into submission with a puritanical brick of fire and brimstone. Every scene shared with her parents is a nightmare. She’s beaten, scolded and scalded while being told “Speak when spoken to, that’s what good girls do,” and “Bad girls burn in hell.” Every second of her life with Mommy and Daddy has told her if she speaks up in defense of herself or others she’ll be severely punished. So when Fool asks her how she managed to avoid getting sent to live in the cannibal basement with her adopted brothers, it’s no surprise she repeats “I do not see, or hear, or speak evil. It’s the only way.” Alice, like many women, is silent to survive.
The title of The People Under the Stairs refers not only to the characters imprisoned by Mommy and Daddy, but to Fool and his family, to Alice, to everyone pushed down into Sunken Places by Robesons and those like them. The other central theme of ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ refers to the system that compels people to look the other way as these atrocities are committed behind the flimsiest of facades.
As much as it’s worth pointing out how on-the-nose People was in 1991, it’s doubly worth pointing out not much has changed in twenty-six years. Maybe that’s why Craven had been working on remaking or adapting the movie to television prior to his death; the concept didn’t truly penetrate public consciousness the first time around, but with socially-conscious horror like Get Out and the Purge series having a moment, it probably felt like a good time to take another swing at it. I submit a late sequel would work just as well. Call it The People Are Still Under the Damn Stairs.