The People Under the Stairs; or If Home Alone Was a Horror Film

Hello and Hallo-welcome to the first in our Shut-In Sundays, where horror decides to stay at home. You join your hosts, Andy and Lilly, who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.

Today’s Film Offering: The People Under the Stairs 

Never go into the house with the skull cloud hanging out over it. Never.
Never go into the house with the skull cloud hanging out over it. Never.

Lilly: The People Under the Stairs is the story of a boy affectionately called ‘Fool’ by all who care about him (right.) trying to screw over the landlords who screwed his family over by stealing some prized gold coins from them. Well, that’s one of the stories in this film, anyway.

Andy: It’s directed by the late Wes Craven, and while we had our schedule drawn up a while before his passing, it seems fitting that we cover at least one of his films this Hallowfest. Few directors can claim the influence he had over the horror genre (there are others, but not many) and his catalogue is a treasure trove, from A Nightmare on Elm Street (which we did last year), to The Hills Have Eyes, to Scream.

It’s really great, however, to do a film of his that fewer people have heard of. Especially one as solid as this one.

Lilly: I admit I hadn’t heard of this one until a year ago, when Andy mentioned it, and another friend said she had been terrified of it as a child–perfect way to suggest me watching it, by the by. However, after we watched it, I was surprised. It smacks of the same fun thrills as the aforementioned Craven titles, and is also one that has the early nineties Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps vibe to it.

Andy: Anyway, we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Here’s the setup:

Lilly: In a story of good vs. evil and black vs white, Fool and Ving Rhames hatch a plan to make sure they can pay the rent and the fees for Fool’s mother’s cancer and the grocery bills for his sister’s kids and…okay, they are super poor. Everything needs paying. So, they decide it’s time to get back at the people who put them there and steal from the landlord of the tower block/slum they live in. Little do they know, it really isn’t going to be as simple as a smash and grab job. You’d think they would have picked up on this from the padlocks on all the windows, but hey. Burglar Hope springs eternal?

Inside the house, they discover that the couple that own it have more than just an incredibly aggressive (yet still cute) guard dog named Prince. Not only is there a sweet little girl named Alice inside but something seems to be inside the walls…

Andy: Yeah, remember when Lilly said it reminded her of 90s kids shows? This is the part that puts the rating somewhere more in the ‘late teens’ area. Wes Craven has the wisdom to imply what is going on rather than show too much of it, but essentially behind the white picket fence is one of the most bizarrely screwed-up family dynamics ever put to film. Heck, the Hillbillies from Hell of The Hills Have Eyes are more normal than this. Having said that, most of the fun of this film comes from exploring this vast, labyrinthine space with our young hero, and so to say too much more would spoil the fun.

Lilly: Suffice to say this film is one that should have scared my friend when they were a kid, and scares me all the more as an adult as I get what is going on far more (one hopes) than a child would. They could get who the titular understairs folk are, and be scared by the notion, but then again, just Fool being chased by a dog is scary enough. There were moments in this film where I was reminded of things like Hocus Pocus and Ernest Scared Stupid, where there are kid-friendly scares, such as the tense moment involving jumping off a roof into a pond. Then, of course, you get moments featuring bodies being butchered/carved which would make you go ‘whoops, cover little Tommy’s eyes, would you?’.

Andy: Yeah, it’s an odd one. I tell you who would like it though. If you’re someone who liked these things as a kid, but are put off from embracing modern horror because you worry they’re all like, well, Hostel and Hostel Part II, this may be the film for you. It’s creepy, but not overly gory. It’s scary, but not intense. There’s bad language here and there, but nothing too over the top. For me at least, it has vibes of the darker of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Lilly: It’s more Sleepy Hollow and Brother’s Grimm than Saw and Cabin Fever. It has dark moments, but more in the story than in the action. The darkest terror of the tale is in the dialogue, and the history of the family who occupies the house. Also, it somehow touches on race wars and the ‘taking back the neighbourhood’ dialogue of the time, making the point that a big house and all the money in the world doesn’t necessarily make you any better than anyone else–in this case, in fact, it makes you so much worse.
And like any fun family romp, it features young people as the protagonists. Not just Fool, but Alice, the girl who lives in the house that sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil so that Daddy won’t be mad.

Andy: These two child actors are just excellent, considering how easy it is for them to be screwed up. And for the majority of the film to be carried by them in this way is part of what makes this film so watchable.

Overall, we like it, and we think you’ll like it as well.

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