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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 comedy film written and directed by Wes Craven.

It's about a young boy called Fool (Brandon Adams) whose family is about to be evicted from their Los Angeles apartment by the evil landlords, who plan to develop the building once they're gone. Fool wants to be a doctor, but his family doesn't have nearly enough money to send him to medical school. What's more, his mother is sick and needs an operation, but his older sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) can't come up with enough money. Fortunately, Ruby's boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) and his accomplice Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) have a plan to rob the landlords' 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) soon come back, and they're armed and crazy. They quickly dispatch Leroy and feed him to their "sons", a pack of mutilated boys they've kidnapped and keep captive in their basement, and set out to hunt Fool down next. 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: The Robesons, who are introduced verbally and emotionally abusing their daughter Alice. The movie later establishes that they physically abuse her as well, such as when "Mommy" forces her to clean up blood, then roughly manhandles her into a bathtub full of boiling hot water and viciously scrubs her clean, and implies that "Daddy" may sexually lust after Alice as well. Alice then reveals to Fool that the People Under The Stairs are her brothers, who were physically mutilated (mostly by having their tongues severed to make them mute for breaking their parents' rules before being banished to live in the basement. It later turns out that they are abusive foster parents, having stolen their "children" from their real parents and then brought them up as their own.
  • 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: The landlords keep a vicious Rottweiler named Prince, who has been trained to kill intruders and fed on human meat to make him extra vicious.
  • 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 is a cute and remarkably innocent preteen boy who manages to trick Daddy into killing Prince and then, after escaping from Mommy and Daddy's house of horrors once, comes back again as part of a plan to free Alice and the People Under the Stairs because he (correctly) doesn't trust the police to do anything. He ultimately faces down Daddy Robeson and threatens to kill him with a rigged explosive if the madman doesn't surrender... then blows him up when the maniac calls his bluff.
  • Barrier-Busting Blow: The "Stairmaster", the leader of the abused kids trapped in the Robesons' basement, punches clean through the staircase from beneath when he saves Alice from Mommy. Several of the other People are shown similarly punching their way through wooden barriers as they breach the crawlspaces and enter the main household.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Mommy and Daddy Robeson, a duo of depraved child kidnappers. Of the two, Mommy is clearly the dominant partner.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: After escaping from the Robeson house, Fool is told by his grandfather that the Robesons got their start as morticians who profited by selling cheap coffins at overinflated prices, then moved into crooked real estate deals. As they got wealthier, they got prospectively greedier and crazier; even in his grandfather's time, the kids avoided the Robeson house. It's very strongly implied that the Robesons are lovers as well as being brothers and sisters, and they may not be the first incestuous generation. Then there's their "children", and the cannibalism...
  • 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.
  • Bondage Is Bad: Daddy Robeson dresses up in a gimp suit like body armor when hunting intruders in the house. It's clearly meant to showcase just how crazy and evil he is.
  • 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. It's a slightly interesting footnote that both the guns used in the film are expensive import models. For all Mommy and Daddy's hoarding, they like the pricey hardware.
  • 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 not monsters, they're just victims of Mommy and Daddy.
  • The Dreaded: The Robeson family have been regarded as figures to avoid for generations, with Fool's grandfather telling him that kids have been avoiding their family home since he was a kid.
  • Devoured by the Horde: Invoked but subverted. At the climax, it seems that the People Under the Stairs are going to eat Mommy alive, but they don't. They beat her and cut her throat before throwing her down the stairs into the basement.
  • Eternally Pearly-White Teeth: Roach apparently has time for dental hygiene while he's hiding from Mommy and Daddy.
  • Evil Matriarch: Mommy Robeson, who is an abusive mother to her daughter and sons, as well as an implied willing participant in Daddy's spree of murder and cannibalism. It's implied several times that she may actually be the dominant figure in their relationship. That said, when she gives Daddy a slap for saying she should have let him kill Alice, he responds by grabbing her neck one-handed and starting to choke her.
  • The Fool: Fool was literally nicknamed after the Tarot card of the same name, and it's a Meaningful Name; 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 Daddy 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.
  • 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 are fed on the flesh of anyone whom the Robesons kill. It's not that they like this diet, but Daddy starves them and refuses to feed them anything else.
    • The Robesons are more subtly implied to feed on their kills as well. At the start of the movie, Daddy keeps spitting out buckshoot from a very strange looking roasted ribcage. If you play close attention in the scene where Daddy butchers Leroy and feeds some of him to his "sons", there is blood smeared around his mouth, making it clear that he's enjoyed a cut or two in the process.
  • 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: Despite only being thirteen years old, Fool repeatedly evades and outwits the Robesons, ultimately freeing their prisoners and getting them both killed.
  • 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 a ridiculous amount of trauma over the course of the film. Fool breaks a brick of some kind over his head, punches him the balls, smashes a plugged-in ceramic lamp on his head, breaks a fireplace poker over the back of his head, drops a brick down the length of a chimney onto his head, and trips him into falling down some stairs.. He is finally killed when he is standing at ground zero for a dynamite explosion, which hurls him the length of the basement into a wall before he falls down into the flooded sub-basement, where if he wasn't already dead anyway, he presumably drowned.
  • 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.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Two men attempt to burgle the house of one of the men's former landlords to steal money for his dying mother. In doing so, they discover that the landlords have been abducting children for years. Director Wes Craven based the plot on a news story he read in the 1970s about two burglars who broke into a Los Angeles household and in doing so, revealed to the police two children who had been locked away by their parents.
  • 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: Despite being a grown man, Daddy can act surprisingly childish at times, dancing around in joy or whimpering when he thinks he's done something wrong, which adds to the impression that Mommy is normally the more dominant of the two. The fact he acts this way whilst being a murderous cannibal only fuels the impression that something is deeply wrong with him.
  • 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 and the People. Mommy cut their tongues out for talking back.
  • Standard '50s Father: Daddy is both an amusing and horrifyingly absurdist subversion of one.
  • Stepford Smiler: Daddy and Mommy get away with their antics by presenting themselves as picture perfect representations of well-mannered, well-educated, old-money white folks straight out of the 50s.
  • 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 exaggerated Expies of the Reagans, as indicated by how they address each other. Considering their villainous antics, it's obvious the homage was not meant as an admiring one.
  • 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 kid 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 People 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.
  • Wham Line: "Now you be careful, that brother-sister act you messed with are evil plain and simple."
  • 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.