Along with meta-commentary and, er, rape, Wes Craven’s other great fascination is with the sickness lurking at the heart of the family unit – the sadistic surrogates in 1972’s The Last House On The Left, the cannibal clan in 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, and in 1991’s overlooked The People Under The Stairs, the square-jawed suburban nightmare of the Robesons.
Played by Twin Peaks duo Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, who channel similar weirdness like a pair of batshit dowsing rods, ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’ are the sepulchral bigots who are forcing young Fool (Brandon Adams) and his family out of their dreary ghetto flat. Fool, at the urging of Ving Rhames’ snake-like hustler sneaks into the Robesons’ forbidding home, where mesh covers the windows, a monstrous dog savages intruders, and untold riches lurk in the vault.
First, however, he must overcome Mummy and Daddy – who dons a gimp suit and charges round the house with a shotgun, presumably traumatising a young Ryan Murphy or Brad Falchuck into writing American Horror Story: Murder House as much for the scene where he surveys his tied up daughter and gives his shiny black bulge a probing caress as anything particularly violent he does – and the couple’s cannibal cast-offs in the basement.
There’s an underpinning of Sam Raimi-style absurdity, gurning black humour and bloody physical comedy (and seemingly endless spaces between walls) to The People Under The Stairs, and Joe Dante adventure, to the point where it starts feeling like a psychosexual cut of The Burbs. Craven makes much of the satire of George HW Bush-era family values in the fascinating extras (and the ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ stuff is straight from the Reagans), but The People Under The Stairs feels more like deliciously odd fairy tale captured in broken glass.
Meek daughter Alice (AJ Langer) – a princess in the tower, kept from the outside world by her wicked parents – her Peter Pan-like emotionally stunted brother (Sean Whalen) who Goonies about between the walls, and even Fool himself, his name picked by his sister’s tarot cards. Like all of Grimms’ fairy tales it has a bleakly unsanitised messages too – behave yourself, or Mummy and Daddy will throw you into the cellar where you’ll be one of a dozen cannibal mutants driven mad in the dark – and ends with savage poetic justice and angry tenants – in lieu of pitchfork wielding villagers – laying siege to their lair.
It’s definitely a film you’d want to have a long conversation with Guillermo del Toro about.
Aside from the lovely interview with the perennially twinkling Craven who seems to have infinite time and patience, are shorter chats with Langer and Whalen, and a strangely unconvincing look at the ‘legacy’ of The People Under The Stars which largely consists of Final Destination creator Jeffrey Reddick umming, ahhhing and prefixing every answer with carefully placed endorsements of the studio system.