In the early 90s, Wes Craven wrote and directed the horror comedy The People Under the Stairs. The movie is unique in that it is a rare horror film set in the inner city instead of an isolated location (e.g., a cabin in the woods). A twist on the typical home invasion movie, The People Under the Stairs is remembered for successfully shining a light on complex topics such as gentrification and capitalism while still succeeding as a funny and scary horror movie.
The People Under the Stairs follows 13-year-old Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams), a poor Los Angeles resident whose family is being evicted from their apartment by the Robesons, a family made up of adults “Mommy” (Wendy Robie) and “Daddy” (Everett McGill) and their daughter, Alice (A. J. Langer). Fool and two men from his neighborhood, Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spencer (Jeremy Roberts), decide to break into the Robesons’ home based on a local legend that the family is hiding a fortune in gold coins somewhere in their house. Unfortunately, once inside they realize that they are trapped in a house of horrors. Leroy and Spencer are quickly killed, and Fool discovers a group of pale children hidden in the Robeson home (the titular “people under the stairs”). Alice helps Fool escape from her parents, who are revealed to be brother and sister.
What appealed to me was the thought of a hidden truth that was radically different from the surface appearance…and the fact that this was taking place in a neighborhood where, supposedly, people were enjoying the good middle-class life.Wes Craven, on the true story that inspired The People Under the Stairs
Alice explains that the pale children broke the Robesons’ “see/hear/speak no evil” rules and now survive via cannibalism. One of the children, named Roach (Sean Whalen), helps Fool escape and gives him a bag of gold coins. He is wounded in the process, and Roach tells Fool to save Alice. Fool flees with the gold and his family is able to pay their rent. He returns to tell Alice she was stolen from her real parents as a child. The pale children turn against Mommy and Daddy, and Fool blows up their home, raining gold on the neighborhood, freeing the pale children onto the streets of Los Angeles and killing Mommy and Daddy in the process.
This bizarre story sounds like total fantasy, but Wes Craven was inspired to write it by a Los Angeles news article he read in 1978. The story was about two black Los Angeles burglars who broke into a home and found two children held hostage in the basement. Police were called and found that the children had never been allowed outside the house, which was filled with locks.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only such story in history. In 2018 it was discovered that another California couple, David and Louise Turpin, were holding 13 severely abused children (aged between two and 29) hostage in their home. The children were fed once a day and allowed to shower only once per year. At the time of rescue, the 29-year-old weighed only 82 pounds. In 2019, the couple was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2044.
The People Under the Stairs ends with dialogue that directly links the Robesons’ evil with their accumulation of wealth. Fool’s grandpa explains the Robeson family history: “Every generation more insane than the one before it. Started out as a family running a funeral home, selling cheap coffins for expensive prices. Then they got their fingers into real estate, started making a lot of money taking over people’s homes. The more money they got, the greedier they got. The greedier they got, the crazier they got…”
Craven’s prior hit A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) was likely so successful as a horror movie because the setting was an idyllic suburb. Who would have thought that terror could happen someplace named “Elm Street”? The People Under the Stairs takes this twist a step further by locating the horror someplace some audiences may already consider scary (inner city Los Angeles) but making the villains the “respectable” white landlords and the hero a young black boy whose family is facing eviction.
We will soon get an updated version of this story for the post-Trump era. In October 2020, Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions announced they will be remaking The People Under the Stairs for Universal Pictures. Information on the remake will appear on our New Horror Movies tracker as its release gets closer.