A few weeks back, I wrote about Society, and how its themes of the upper class preying on the less fortunate went over my head when I saw it as a kid. Younger me didn't like the movie, because that metaphor was pretty much all it had (beyond the FX that took "too long" to get to), making it a lousy choice for a less mature audience. It was good timing for a revisit, because when I watched Wes Craven's The People Under The Stairs this past week (thanks to the new Blu-ray), I realized that he had done what Brian Yuzna had not - he made a movie that worked even if you ignored/didn't notice its deeper thematic ideas about the ongoing struggle between the haves and the have nots. I was only 12 when I saw Craven's film for the first time, and while the difference between the two groups there is literally made black and white, I didn't think much about that element - I just enjoyed a good ol' fashioned "people are trapped in a house and they try to get out" horror flick, with the added bonus of the fact that the hero was a kid about my age.
But something else dawned on me when I was rewatching it this week, something that I never thought of even in passing: it was a return to form for Craven, who had started his career with a pair of very grounded, non-supernatural films (Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes) but spent the entire '80s offering more fantastical fare. Starting with Deadly Blessing in 1981 (a seemingly straight religious cult movie until they actually succeed in resurrecting a monster), his films always had one or both feet planted in the impossible: a swamp monster (Swamp Thing), a dream killer (Elm Street), a zombie robot (Deadly Friend)... even Serpent & The Rainbow, which is based on a true story, greatly embellished the source material in order to include things like magic scorpions. In fact, the closest he got to real-world fare throughout the decade was the ridiculous Hills Have Eyes Part 2, which featured the villain who got his throat torn out in the first movie, now perfectly fine. And dog flashbacks.
1991's People Under The Stairs, however, contains not one supernatural element of any kind. The plot is as relatable as they come - our hero is Fool, a kid who is facing eviction from their ghetto apartment and the likely death of his mother since they can't afford the cancer treatments. Desperate, he agrees to help a shady acquaintance named Leroy (Ving Rhames) rob their landlords, who are said to have gold and other riches in their big suburban home. But soon after breaking in, they realize these are no mere slumlords, and getting back out won't be as easy as getting in. So it takes on some basic traits of a haunted house movie, but there's nary a ghost to be found - they're trapped by standard booby traps (a Craven staple whether the movie takes place in reality or not), a very loyal guard dog, and of course, the owners, a brother-sister pair of nutjobs played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, then fresh from Twin Peaks.
NOT adding to Fool's misery are the title characters, who despite their ominous heading are actually kind of the good guys here. They're scary, sure, and look like zombies due to a life of living without sunlight and eating scrap "meat" (pieces of people that the owners murdered), not to mention the fact that they're each missing at least one body part (if they say something they shouldn't they lose their tongue, see something they shouldn't they lose their eyes, etc). After serving as a source of mysterious scares for a good chunk of the film, eventually they side with Fool and help him escape (twice!), as well as get their revenge on their captors.
OK, so it can be a bit goofy at times, but still - there's nothing in the movie that COULDN'T happen, and I can't help but wonder if there were fans of Wes' earlier films that were relieved that he was going back to basics. Like many a kid of my generation, to me the name "Wes Craven" is synonymous with Freddy Krueger (and additionally, for me personally, Horace Pinker), but older horror fans who were there at the beginning might have been miffed that a guy who came on to the scene with gritty, realistic horror thrillers had abandoned such fare in favor of "hooey". Granted, People isn't as raw as those first two films, but it's got more in common with them than I ever really considered. Like Last House and Hills, the film is essentially about good people going to extremes when sufficiently provoked by an attack on their family, it's just less direct. It's quite telling when Fool finally finds their stash of gold/money in the basement - everything's just tossed in unceremoniously, looking more like Smaug's lair than Walter White's storage unit of riches - it's as if they didn't care about having money for themselves as much as they cared about their tenants NOT having it. And yet they were trying to evict Fool and his family who were behind on rent due to medical issues.
Indeed, People sticks out not just as a return to form for Craven, but also one of several horror films in the '90s to tackle urban injustices. Candyman is probably the most famous of the lot, with Bernard Rose changing Barker's original, London-set story (featuring a pale white killer!) and transplanting it to Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green, using that location's awful and tragic history to its advantage. 1995's Tales from the Hood was an anthology, allowing its makers to explore other areas like slavery (which Candyman also addressed, albeit not as directly), police brutality (post-Rodney King) and gang violence. As we all know, the early half of the 90s weren't exactly overflowing with genre fare, so I find it interesting that among those few (and the even rarer group of ones that are GOOD) are also the only ones that were actually SAYING something. The other early 90s horror films are more like Lawnmower Man and Brainscan - goofy shit that was applying new tech to tired stories, as relevant now as they were then (which is, not at all).
Alas, as far as his writing goes, Wes went back to supernatural territory for everything since - he's only written two more of his own films (New Nightmare and My Soul To Take) as well as the Pulse remake that was directed by Jim Sonzero. His grounded theatrical features (the Scream films, Red Eye) were written by others, and thus we've been denied his full take on our world for nearly 25 years. Obviously Scream is probably at the top of many fans' list of their favorite Wes Craven movies, but personally I think there's something more terrifying about these particular three than any of his others. I still remember being legitimately frightened by Fool's living conditions (random crackheads in the hallway and such), in addition to the more traditional scares. And Hills is probably his scariest movie overall; all due respect to Freddy Krueger, but the hokey concept kept me from ever getting TOO worked up by it (my biggest scare in the series is probably Dream Warriors' pig-based jump scare). I've said time and time again that I don't scare easily, but I'm definitely more likely to get frightened by a movie that could conceivably happen. I mean, I love Shocker more than anyone in the world, but even when I was 10 I thought it was more funny than scary, laughing at the idea of a killer jumping out of my TV.
At this point I should remind folks (or inform them for the first time) that Craven has bachelor's degrees in English and Psychology, and a master's (!) in Philosophy, so it's not surprising that he might be more interested in such areas than many of his peers. Unlike John Carpenter, who has as many sci-fi movies on his resume as horror, Craven never really strayed far from the genre (his lone non horror/thriller effort is Music of the Heart), so I assume these more socially-minded efforts were a way to keep things interesting for him - it's just a shame he went so long without offering another. As his screenplays tend to be a bit tighter when he's working within real world confines, I truly hope he can give us one more in the vein of People and Hills (or even Last House, sans the rape and goofy ass Benny Hill cops), using his considerable skills (and academic prowess) to give us another scary trip without any supernatural distractions. Real, raw terror, like he started out with - and so far only fully returned to this one time.