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Film / The People Under the Stairs

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If these walls could talk, they’d scream.

The People Under the Stairs is a 1991 horror movie directed by Wes Craven. It's the story of a young boy, called Fool (Brandon Adams), whose family is about to be evicted from their apartment by the evil landlords, who want to develop their building once they're gone. Fool's mother is sick and needs an operation, but Fool's sister can't come up with enough money. Fool wants to be a doctor, but his family doesn't have enough money to ever send him to medical school. Fortunately, his sister's boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) and his accomplice Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) have a plan to rob the landlord's house; and they need Fool's help to do it.

Breaking into the house proves to be the easy part; it's getting back out that's the problem. The house is built like a fortress, and designed to keep something in. Electrified doors, a vicious guard dog, strange creatures in the basement, and a bizarrely extensive security system prevent them from leaving before the owners return. "Mommy" (Wendy Robie) and "Daddy" (Everett McGill) are back, and they're armed and crazy. They quickly dispatch Leroy and feed him to their "sons", a pack of mutilated boys that they keep captive in the basement, and set out to hunt Fool through the house. With the help of their daughter Alice (AJ Langer) and a boy called Roach (Sean Whalen), Fool attempts to escape the house and reveal the truth to the world.


A wonderfully bizarre horror movie, The People Under the Stairs has some of the structure of a fairy tale with Fool needing to save Alice from her insane captors. Throw in some surprisingly frightening villains and some social commentary and it's a memorable, if unusual, movie. In 1992 and 1993, the movie was adapted into a haunted house at Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights. A sequel to this house later followed in 2006.


This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Played to ridiculous levels by the villains. Zig-zagged in that they have no real children of their own, but they still fit the bill otherwise.
  • Alice Allusion: In this, the Alice is a little girl who has never seen the outside world. She acts as the movie's Damsel in Distress, but gets some awesome moments later.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Prince. Played seriously and frighteningly.
  • Author Appeal: Wes Craven's continued love for booby traps and survivalist tactics.
  • Ax-Crazy: Mommy and Daddy Robeson are both murderously insane. They abduct, abuse, and mutilate children, and murder any other person who comes into their house and sees too much. Daddy is more openly physically violent, but Mommy is every bit as cruel, especially when she's stressed.
  • Badass Adorable: Fool becomes this over the course of the film.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Mommy and Daddy Robeson, a duo of depraved child kidnappers. Of the two, Mommy is clearly the dominant partner.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: The events of the film take place during Fool's birthday, from morning until some time in the early evening.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Inverted. The main character is black and the first person to die is the white accomplice.
  • Bond One-Liner: Fool has some good ones, especially at the end when he blows up Mommy and Daddy's house — causing the amassed wealth of bills that were stolen from the community to come raining down.
    Alice: Fool, are you okay?
    Fool: I feel like a million dollars.
  • Broken Record: Mommy and Daddy both repeat "Burn in Hell" anytime they talk about someone they don't like.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Grampa Booker warns Fool not to get involved with "that brother-sister act" after his first escape. It's implied that it's a family tradition.
  • Bunker Woman: Inverted: Alice is the only abducted child in the house whom "Mommy" and "Daddy" don't confine to the basement, and appears to be the only girl among them. Roach is loose in the crawlspaces, but only because he escaped the cellar.
  • The Cavalry: Grampa and Fool's sister repeatedly save Fool by getting the villains to put their normal charade back on to answer the doorbell. When Mommy decides to shoot the pests on her porch, the whole neighborhood shows up behind them.
  • Cool Guns: Daddy's weapons of choice are a pump-action shotgun and a Desert Eagle.
  • Creepy Basement: Especially since it really is full of flesh eating monsters and has trap stairs.
    • Subverted in that the monsters actually help Fool. There's also a big treasure vault down there.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The titular people under the stairs. They're just victims of Mommy and Daddy.
  • Eternally Pearly-White Teeth: Roach apparently has time for dental hygiene while he's hiding from Mommy and Daddy.
  • The Fool: Fool's nicknamesake. Played fairly straight; Fool gets by because he's clever, but he's damn lucky every time it counts.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: In the room (which appears to be some sort of religious shrine) where Man attempts to impale Fool through the wall with his bayonet, a framed picture of Ronald Reagan himself can be seen for a split second as the camera quickly pans across the screen. Fitting.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Averted and used by the villains; Daddy smokes a pipe while the police are visiting so he'll appear normal to them.
  • Hero-Tracking Failure: Daddy unloads a hell of a lot of lead into the walls without hitting Fool. Of course, Fool is in the walls and that limits the angles he can shoot at.
  • "Home Alone" Antics: A very, very dark take on it. Even if Mommy and Daddy are the ones who have loaded the house with secret passages and traps up to the literal wazoo and should know them by heart, Fool and Alice and Roach are the ones that take the most advantage of them to move around stealthily and protect themselves (Roach has even been living on them for what seems like years, even with Daddy constantly hunting him down).
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The people under the stairs aren't particularly interested in eating people, it's just that Daddy starves them.
    • There are hints that Daddy is this by choice. We only see that he's eating meat at the beginning of the movie, but he keeps spitting out buckshot. They never leave the house. He uses that gun on intruders. Do the math. He's shown feeding on Leroy's body before tossing him to the 'kids'.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Even with an entire crowd there, nobody thinks of watching or detaining "Mommy" after Alice knocks her out near the end.
    • Fool's pretty good at reading people and situations, which makes it all the odder when he simply stares at the obvious schmuck bait.
  • Karmic Death: Mommy being attacked by the boys after they escape the basement.
  • Kid Hero: Fool. This is taken to Home Alone levels at a few points.
  • Kill It with Fire: Fool blows up the house at the end. No one but the villains are hurt.
  • Knight Templar: The villains subscribe to some interpretation of religion that compels them to mutilate and imprison children that aren't pure, as well as trying to torture purity into their "daughter".
  • Lampshade Hanging: While threatening Daddy with the dynamite in the treasure vault, Fool mentions that the vault wasn't the best place to store it.
  • Large Ham: Every single line that Daddy utters. Mommy starts to get into the act towards the end too.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Although Alice and the eponymous People aren't at all related, she and Roach really care about each other. She feeds him (even though she knows she'll be beaten if/when she's caught) and he helps Fool find and rescue her.
  • MacGyvering: Fool's trick with the candles and coins.
  • Made of Iron: Daddy takes more blunt trauma to the head and a few shots to the nards in this movie, but he never seems to slow down.
    • As well as a fireplace poker actually breaking in half after it hit him once.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: The titular people under the stairs. Though their deformities and mental problems are the result of abuse from the villains.
  • Malevolent Architecture: When the security system is active, the house has spike traps, trick stairs, and electrified doorknobs.
  • Mugging the Monster: Leroy's plan for Home-Invasion Robbing The Monster kicks off the plot.
  • The '90s: News footage of the bombing of Baghdad in the Persian Gulf War plays on a TV outside one of the captives' cells. This is pretty important because when Fool presents the coins that Roach gave to him to a friend of the family, the man says that the couple of coins alone can pay for Fool's mother's operation and pay in full the family's rent... all the way to the year 2000.
  • No Name Given: "Daddy" and "Mommy" are never given full names. Even in the credits, they're only listed as "Man" and "Woman".note 
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Fool seems reluctant to tell people that his real name is Poindexter.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Mommy only seems to be genuinely affectionate to her husband and their watchdog Prince. And even that is played extremely creepily. Subverted after Prince is killed. She's upset that Prince died and that Daddy was stupid enough to do it by accident, but she almost immediately decides to get another dog, suggesting he's completely replaceable to her.
    • Leroy acts like a total asshole to Fool for most of his screentime, but in his final seconds being gunned down by Daddy calls out for Fool to run in an apparent last act of genuine concern for him.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Mommy and Daddy are openly racist, shamelessly using slurs to denote black people.
  • Precision F-Strike: Right before blowing up the house at the end:
    Fool: I'm tired of fucking around! So either put the gun down now, or kiss your ass goodbye, boy!
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Daddy has shades of this, dancing around yelling "I got him!" when he thinks he's killed Fool.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The police are fairly quick to respond to calls of trouble at the home of Mommy and Daddy, but the crimes of the two maniacs are so outrageous that it makes it almost impossible to believe that these two seemingly normal people could have done anything like imprisoning/mutilating children.
  • Rescue Romance: Fool is definitely Alice's Knight in Shining Armor and goes to great lengths to save her. In turn, she does her best to protect him. When Fool comes back for her later, they have a Held Gaze when holding hands, and later hug. Even Daddy is convinced there is something going on between them.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The boys trapped in the basement rip through the walls to attack Mommy once they're released.
  • Secondary Character Title: The titular people are the Robesons' previous victims, trapped under the stairs after being mutilated.
  • Share Phrase: "Burn in hell" gets used a lot throughout.
  • Shotguns Are Just Better: Daddy's main weapon is a pump-action shotgun that can have a bayonet attached to it for stabbing people through the walls.
  • Shout-Out: Mommy saying "Kill him, Daddy, kill him!" is reminiscent of Mrs. Voorhees chanting "Kill her, mommy, kill her!" in Friday the 13th (1980).
  • Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: Mostly horror, but there is some tongue-in-cheek and borderline slapstick comedy as well.
  • The Sociopath: Mommy and Daddy Robeson, who raise rent on their properties arbitrarily and kidnap children to raise, eventually mutilating them and locking them under the stairs when they do anything they disapprove of.
  • The Speechless: Roach. Mommy cut his tongue out for talking back.
  • Standard '50s Father: Daddy is both an amusing and horrifyingly absurdist subversion of one.
  • Stepford Smiler: Mommy, any time the police show up.
  • Surprise Slide Staircase: The steps from the basement fold down as Fool ascends them. He's able to climb up the slide itself immediately after slipping to the bottom, as the wooden steps aren't that smooth even after they tilt to form a slope.
  • Take That!: Mommy & Daddy are pretty much Up to Eleven Expies of the Reagans, as indicated by how they address each other.
  • Tarot Motifs: Fool's sister gives him the nickname Fool because she says The Fool tarot card represents him.
  • Tongue Trauma: The fate of the rejected boys.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Leroy. Sure, go into a house with so much security a prison would blush at. Nothing can go wrong with that...
  • Took a Level in Badass: Fool goes from a timid coward not wanting to enter the house, to a clever genius who kills their rabid dog by luring him to a wall to get stabbed by Daddy. He goes back to the house without fear, sets the rest of the trapped boys free and blows the house up with dynamite, killing Daddy.
    • Not to mention that he actually punches said big dog right in the nose AND punches Daddy in the nuts when he rescues Alice.
    • Alice begins as a shy innocent damsel afraid of Mommy and Daddy to an impressive hero in her own right, who quickly turns the tables on them and gets angry when they threaten to kill Fool, attacks Mommy from above when she attempts to kill Fool's Sister, and then stabs and weakens her, ultimately making Mommy afraid of her instead, and giving the rest of the boys a chance to maul her to death.
  • Treasure Room: Mommy & Daddy have one where they hoard all their wealth, alongside stacks of dynamite and a chemistry labratory.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Fool's grandfather vanishes after he confronts Mommy, not even visible in the crowd shots that follow.
  • Your Mom: Fool distracting the rottweiler: Your mama sleeps with cats!
  • Zillion-Dollar Bill: The coins Fool gets at the end pay for everything his family needs.


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