I remember the first time I saw The People Under the Stairs. I grew up in Akron, Ohio, in a neighborhood called Highland Square. The hub of the neighborhood was a stretch of Market Street that was a collection of storefronts and small businesses. By the time the 1970s rolled around and American cities turned into rancid shitholes, just about every other business on this stretch of road was a bar. There was a joint called The Bucket Shop. It had an informal slogan, ripped from an old Arlo Guthrie tune: you can get anything you want at The Bucket Shop... anything.
Standing sentinel over the ever-changing Market Street landscape of pizza joints, shoe repair shops, Chinese takeout restaurants, old-school pharmacies, and dive bars was the Highland Theatre, a grand old movie house with about fifteen hundred seats and a screen that seemed like it was the size of a football field. The building itself dominated the square, even being set back from the street as it was. It looked like the original builders dug out a hill to muscle the structure into the neighborhood. It was one of those places a kid like me would walk into during the ’80s and even being as ignorant as I was, I could tell they just didn’t build them like that anymore.
Only a block from my house, it was the go-to location for seeing movies. It didn’t matter if it showed nothing but second-run. I was a kid and box office there was cheap, so it saved the folks a few bucks. I can’t rattle off a list of the movies I saw there; too much time has gone by. But I do remember seeing Star Trek II there twice. Seeing the Enterprise blow stuff up on a screen you had to actually move your head about to take in fully really put the hook in me. To this day that flick is one of my favorites.
But, the Highland got socked by the rise of the multiplex. A second-run theater that was deteriorating as rapidly as the neighborhood at the time just couldn’t compete, and the Highland went out of business in the late 80s.
That’s not the end of the story, though.
A couple local businessmen turned up in the early nineties with dreams of turning the theater into, well, a true theater. They would still show movies, but there were plans to book concert acts and other performances; mostly gospel, if I remember correctly. They spent months working on the abandoned theater, not able to get it into tip-top shape, but rehabbed enough that they could open the doors to the public.
One day, the old-style overhanging marquee, which had been blank for years, announced opening night. It would be a film. The film the owners chose as the Highland’s grand resurgence into life would be The People Under the Stairs. Whoever these new owners were, they must not have had two dimes to rub together if this was the best they could do for a grand reopening. But it didn’t matter. I loved that theater, and was excited to see it back in business. Since my mom used to take me there all the time when I was little, I decided it’d be a good idea for the two of us to go see the movie. Why not? It’d be a fun night out. Besides, I was fifteen years old at the time. I was firmly within that awful time in life where a person is too old to fool around with kid stuff, but also too young to legally do what adults do for fun. All you adults out there who wonder all the time why teenagers are wild, it’s not just youth and raging hormones. They’re bored out of their skulls.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only kid in the area who decided seeing a shitty horror movie was a good way to spend a Friday night. When my mother and I showed up at the theater, there must have been a couple hundred of my classmates there as well. And not another parent in sight. Oh, the horror. That lobby was about ten times scarier than anything I saw on screen that night. It was the absolute pinnacle of teenage embarrassment. How bad was it? I can’t disassociate that moment from the film. They are linked forever in my consciousness, and still have the ability to raise hackles if I let it. All my peers, who I had no idea even knew the theater existed, were there with their friends, and I was on a date with mom. Oh, good lord. But, I toughed it out, and slithered into a seat at the very back of the theater, staying really, really low down. At some point, I believe they even managed to show a movie that night, but I was too focused on every snicker and outburst of laughter in the place to notice. I was sure they were laughing at me. End credits rolled and I rushed out of there ahead of my mom and up the block towards home. We never spoke of it, but she wasn’t oblivious. She knew I had unwittingly stumbled into a ghastly teenage social faux pas, and she wisely let it slide.
Funny thing is, I really did want to see that movie, so the next night I went back by myself and bought a ticket, sans distractions. There must have been three other people in the joint. Things were not looking good for this newest incarnation of the Highland Theater.
Anyway, the movie!
Released in 1991, The People Under the Stairs was Wes Craven’s follow-up to Shocker and The Serpent and the Rainbow. Craven had a hell of a career in the ’80s, carving out a niche for himself in horror that included one of the most famous franchises in the genre, the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The People Under the Stairs was about the last hurrah for a run that picked up steam in 1977 with The Hills Have Eyes. Things have slowed down for Craven’s behind the camera work since this movie, but he still managed to kick off another franchise, Scream, which I remember as being hailed as a comeback of sorts for the horror auteur. The first Scream flick came out in 1996, so that must have been a pretty low five years to require a comeback. Was The People Under the Stairs responsible?
Somewhat, I guess. But the thing is, The People Under the Stairs is no worse and no better than anything else Craven had directed at the time. It’s a neat little genre flick with a sensible plot and a typically fine attention to detail.
The film follows Poindexter Williams, otherwise known as Fool (Brandon Adams), a kid from the ghetto who has to turn to a life of crime to keep his family from being thrown out on the street. He ends up hooking up with Leroy (Ving Rhames), a small time hood who hatches a plan to rob the house of Fool’s absentee landlords, in the hopes of finding a secret stash of gold.
The landlords are a real treat. They are a bizarre couple called Mommy and Daddy Robeson (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, respectively). They’re a bit outlandish. They have some serious leather hiding in their closets, a teenage daughter they keep locked away in a bedroom, and a cage full of people in the basement, the eponymous People of the title. Robie and McGill rule this movie. Robie is an unhinged freak who unleashes her husband on any unwanted intruders in the house like a rabid dog. McGill plays his part with a menacing ease, throwing in some innocent schoolboy charms along with a willingness to engage in some nasty slapstick. Robie and McGill do a fine job of conveying the insular world Mommy and Daddy have created for themselves. Their characters are totally insane, and only somewhat too eccentric to be believable.
Most of the movie consists of Fool, the Robeson’s daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), and one of the formerly captive basement dwellers, Roach (Sean ‘Aaron Buhh!!’ Whalen) being chased through the house by a gimped be-clad Daddy. And what a house! Formerly a funeral parlor, the Robeson’s home is a maze of rooms with huge voids between the walls. It’s a Hollywood invention that a house like this, one where a person can climb from the basement to the attic without ever leaving the walls, could exist, but it makes for a great setting. It’s a funhouse brought to life, and the production team has reason to be proud of it.
So, good performances from the antagonists, a fully realized location...that must mean the movie is pretty good, right? Well, it would be, but it begins to suffer from some dreadful slowness in the second half. Despite all the goings-on up there on the screen, I had a hard time paying attention. After about an hour of this movie, I just wanted to see things get wrapped up. After fifteen hundred words, I feel the same way about this review. The People Under the Stairs is a decent flick, and it has its share of moments, but it’s nothing to break a neck over to seek out.