Wes Craven’s best films are all driven by ideas, whether it’s a boogeyman who can kill you in your sleep or that same fictional boogeyman gaining real-world power from our collective fear. When those ideas combined with politics or social issues, the results were Craven’s rare “message” movies — raw nerves transformed into horror films as a way for the filmmaker to express his outrage. 1991’s The People Under the Stairs is Craven’s first real “message” movie since the one-two punch of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. It’s also one of his most underrated.

Less a horror film than it is a pitch black comedy, The People Under the Stairs is Wes Craven’s most overtly political film. There’s nothing apologetic about it and, like Joe Dante would later do in Homecoming, Craven has something he wants to say and isn’t shy about letting it rip on screen. House and Hills were both made in reaction to the Vietnam war — Craven was angry and moved to write and direct a pair of films about Man’s capacity for cruelty and violence, the effects of which leave every single character physically or psychologically devastated. It’s perhaps no accident that The People Under the Stairs was born out of the first Gulf War and a decade of the middle class shrinking, AIDS getting swept under the rug, Iran Contra and trickle-down economics. Craven saw what he felt were the wrong people seizing all the power and this movie is his response.

In fact, The People Under the Stairs is best read as a direct answer to Ronald Reagan’s America, with villainous landlords Everett McGill and Wendy Robie standing in for the President and First Lady. McGill even refers to Robie as “Mommy,” Reagan’s own pet name for his wife (that Craven later reveals them to be incestuous brother and sister is perhaps his darkest and meanest joke towards the Reagans, but this is that kind of movie). They’re making a fortune by keeping everyone else poor, hoarding the wealth as a means of gentrifying the neighborhood. They stand by as the lower class literally falls between the cracks in their house. It’s a none-too-subtle bit of commentary, but there’s nothing particularly subtle about The People Under the Stairs. Craven is working with a sledgehammer, not a razor, and while the movie is messy, that’s part of its charm — he’s taking big, broad swings and isn’t afraid of breaking the furniture.

After spending his last few films in the suburbs — A Nightmare on Elm Street, Deadly Friend and Shocker among them — Craven heads out of the suburbs and into the inner city. While some of his “street” speak is cringe-worthy, he makes up for it by writing a handful of fun, spunky characters and casting the likes of Ving Rhames, Bill Cobb and genre staple Kelly Jo Minter (The Lost Boys, Popcorn, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5). The movie would be a ton of fun just as a reunion of Twin Peaks stars Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, who are clearly having a blast skewering white conservative America by turning them into violent, cartoonishly perverse lunatics.

The People Under the Stairs is Craven’s most satiric film — playful even — building to a frenzied climax in which McGill stomps around the set in head-to-do S&M leather “Gimp” garb, and it’s impossible not to imagine Craven standing just out of frame, cackling at the absurdity he has orchestrated. That it got released by a major studio in 1991 is a kind of miracle, but that it went on to gross five times its $6 million budget — and even opened in first place at the box office — is an even bigger miracle. Craven clearly tapped into something with this one.

Maybe it was the sense of lunatic fun to which audiences responded. It certainly wasn’t the scares; that’s not what Craven is going for here. The monster is no longer some supernatural creation. Gone are the days of Freddy Krueger and Horace Pinker. The People Under the Stairs makes mankind the monster again — it’s a movie about the horrors of the class divide. In fact, the titular People Under the Stairs hardly appear in the movie; it’s more about their presence being felt as a symbol of the repressed — those who have been discarded and silenced (literally; they’ve had tongues and ears removed). When, at the end of film, we see these zombie-like prisoners walking free out into the night as all the hoarded cash rains down on the neighborhood, Craven isn’t just returning what rightfully belongs to its residence. He’s completely changing the status quo. He’s talking about a revolution.

Brilliantly directed as it is, the success of Scream just five years later put Wes Craven back on the track of directing more traditionally straightforward horror movies, and he hasn’t made a film as charged or angry as this one since. His films now lean more towards execution exercises and less towards ideas. I love the Craven who knows how to generate a scare scene, but I miss the Craven with Big Things to say.

As the divide between the 1% and the remaining 99 continues to grow wider, The People Under the Stairs only feels more relevant more than 20 years after its release. It’s still Wes Craven’s most twisted and funny movie, simultaneously messy and unhinged in a great way. Maybe living through another decade-plus of war, socioeconomic downturn and national tragedy after national tragedy will drive Craven to make another message movie as angry and darkly comic as this one. In the meantime, we horror fans will be waiting…behind the walls.

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on About.com, DVDVerdict.com and fthismovie.net, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.