.Wes Craven, ermm, what happened? 1991's The People Under the Stairs typifies everything that was wrong yet in an odd way right about early '90s horror. It's such a jumbled hodgepodge of over-the-top antics and half baked social commentary that it seems "off" director Craven also wrote the screenplay. Wait a minute, he wrote The Hills Have Eyes Part II, right? Craven tiptoes about the notion of racial redistricting; the racist practice of concentrating minority populations in geographical areas for the benefit of continued support of those district's elected officials while they in turn keep those they represent under their thumb.
Instead of political figureheads, Craven makes the antagonists a "man/woman" pair of demented, racist, and paranoid real estate mavens bent on keeping an African American community in poverty while they accrue generational wealth from the raw dealing. Not to mention the "couple" stealing babies, keeping them in their basement as cannibalistic vagabonds, wearing bondage gear while blasting holes in walls with a 12 gauge, and keeping a "daughter" in mortal fear 24/7. That sounds so juicy, and it should have been, but the whole thing comes off ridiculously wafer thin. The problem is People Under the Stairs trades its testicles for theatrical watchability, like many mainstream horror flicks of those first few years of the Seinfeld decade, just a diverting night at the movies rather than something with resonance.
And that's perfectly okay, one of my personal casual "throw-ins" happens to be this very film. It's just that the telegraphed guffaws of the bumbling maniacs, "likable" kid lead, and general sense of "safeness" really hamper the potential impact of its weighty ideas. Despite the word "nigger" tossed around a few times, the overly mad couple actually nearly come off as likable as the one-liner laden boy trapped in their fortress-like home. If Craven insisted on "going there", why didn't he make them real pigheaded scumbags, like Fred Phelps on steroids on PCP-laced crank. Instead of stealing what appear to be white children, why not make African American babies transform from years of brutal neglect into oatmeal-faced maneater savages? That would have made the community "Mommy" and "Daddy" control so much more pissed off at their oppressors once the truth is revealed. Hell, you wouldn't have needed dynamite to blow up that house once that cat tore out of its bag. There's a slew of minor tweaks that could have been made to make The People Under the Stairs substantially more powerful than just goofy fun dancing around serious topics. At least we have the following year's Candyman for compelling racial subtext.
However there is one scene in People Under the Stairs that genuinely approaches something of greater interest. The boy, "Fool", is captured and forced to watch his sister's boyfriend (Ving Rhames) gorily gutted like a deer by the Man with bloody chunks being thrown to feed the people under the stairs. Of course, the streetwise boy merely cringes like he's smelling some bad bologna at the most horrific sight ever in his young life, but what makes the scene so disturbing is the smear of blood on the Man's lips. It's just a small touch that's incredibly subversive, yet sadly mostly missing in the rest of Craven's biding of time before the acclaim of Scream. I also liked the tiny bit right afterward with the (100 pounds soaking wet) feral Roach propping up the (250 pound) mutilated carcass out of the dead pit to divert the attention of the mutants away from the boy. For a second you're truly like "WTF?!" as the ripped up corpse rises from the dead before The People Under the Stairs falls back into its MPAA safety net.