The news today (the 31st August 2015) of the death of the director Wes Craven came as something it was hard not to characterise with gallows humour as a ‘Shocker’, of all the directors classed as ‘Masters of Horror’ Craven was the one that had kept a candle burning for the horror genre. Whilst others either fizzled out after initial promise (Hooper), gradually got stuck in a genre rut (Romero), suffered a gradual decline (Carpenter), or left the genre for pastures new (Cronenberg), Craven demonstrated a remarkable resilience.
His is not a consistent career, for every classic like The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream, there is a mediocrity like Deadly Blessing or Deadly Friend, and even a few outright disasters such as Hills Have Eyes 2 and Swamp Thing. Whether through wit, guile or blind luck (I do not have the authority to judge) Craven was able to not only resurrect his career at several points when it appeared moribund, but do so with movies that reinvigorated the horror genre as a whole. The ebb and flow of Craven’s career so matches that of the US horror film, that there is a case to be made that Craven IS horror (I cannot yet bring myself to go into the past tense).
Craven was an English and Humanities professor who left the ivory towers of academia for a career in film. After shady and unsurprisingly obfuscated beginnings directing porn (the legend has it that he was on the set of Deep Throat) Craven arrived on the scene in 1972 with the still controversial The Last House on the Left. A remake of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring transposed to the US, the film’s brutal sexual violence made it one of the most notorious horror movies of the seventies, part of a wave of genre films made in the shadow of the Vietnam war and a rising tide of urban violence on the home front (for more information about this period of US horror, I recommend Adam Simon’s fantastic documentary The American Nightmare from 2000).
Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes set him up as a key figure on the horror scene, but a series of poor movies and the colossal disaster of Swamp Thing 1982 left him looking like a spent force by the early eighties. Then just as the slasher cycle appeared to be running out of steam, Craven wrote and directed A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 and created not only one of the horror icons of the modern era in Freddie Kruger, but also gave New York based fledgling movie studio New Line such a financial lifeline that it came to be known as ‘the house that Freddie built’.
Things were looking grim again for Craven by the mid nineties after big budget flop Vampire in Brooklyn in 1995, but then he directed a Kevin Williamson script for a film called Scary Movie. Released under the title Scream in 1996 the film came out at a time when horror as a film genre was so in the doldrums that it was marketed as ‘the new thriller from Wes Craven’. Scream was a smart and self reflexive take on the slasher movie that recognised that the tropes of that sub-genre had become so fossilised by over use that they were ripe for satire. But rather than craft a pure comedy (as others would do, notably and ironically the Scary Movie franchise) Craven and Williamson made a film that was scary even as it dissected the genre. Pre-Funny Games, it was Funny Games with jokes, and a new franchise was born.
But for me, it is in the shadows of Craven’s most famous films that his very best work lies. The intriguing voodoo and anthropology drama The Serpent and the Rainbow with Bill Pullman in 1988 was in many ways an attempt to break away from the horror genre, but it still contains some shocking moments (including one with a large nail that is agonisingly memorable). By 1994, the Elm Street franchise had totally run out of steam and become a self parody. Craven was persuaded to return to the franchise, but rather than continue the story he made New Nightmare a post modern demolition job that can be seen as a dry run for ideas that would be packaged in a slightly less aggressive way in Scream.
However, my personal pick from Craven’s filmography is 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, a film Craven was working towards remaking at the time of his passing.
The director John Carpenter has a theory that most horror films divide into two ideological extremes, left-wing horror and right-wing horror. This isn’t a party political distinction as such – fear is universal regardless of how one ticks a ballot paper – but it expresses a fundamental outlook upon the monstrous that goes back to the first scary stories told around the first fires.
Right wing horror is the more common. Here the horror resides in a threat that lives in the dark outside the campfire’s flickering light. A classic example or a right wing horror would be Dracula or Aliens. Society is threatened by something external and the representatives of social order must pool resources and defend themselves against attack. Right wing horror is ultimately more popular because it is easier to process, more conducive to binary oppositions of good and evil.
Left wing horror presents a terror far more insidious, here the horror does not reside ‘out there’ but hides within the light of the campfire. Think of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a fine an upstanding gentleman becomes a homicidal maniac because he unleashes his own repressed desires, or David Cronenberg’s body horror films in which the body becomes a battleground, corrupted, transformed and destroyed by disease or experimentation.
The clearest way to identify the left and right wings of horror is in the treatment of the monster. The aloof aristocratic vampire, the mutated inspect, the xenomorph with slavering jaws, the masked killer are all definitively ‘other’. The undead thing that used to be your husband, wife or neighbour, but now just wants to feast on your flesh, is recognisable as formerly one of us. Go even further and the tragic monster pursued by pitchfork wielding locals suggests the real evil is us. The ultimate extension of this leads to films like Clive Barker’s Nightbreed where the monsters are the heroes, or Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in which fairy tale monsters are a relief from the all too human monsters of fascism.
The People Under the Stairs is so far to the left of the division that it probably knows all the words of The Internationale. Craven’s film is perfectly enjoyable if taken on a surface level as modern Grimm’s Fairy Tale, but scratch that surface even lightly and a strong and politically motivated subtext is to be found. Like Carpenter’s They Live, Craven’s film is interested in making the left wing of horror explicitly political.
‘Fool’ (Adams) is a young African-American boy growing up in grim urban squalor. His family (older sister, her kids, and a sick mother) are the last tenants in a slum building. Fool has to walkover the prone bodies of whacked out crack addicts just to get to his front door. As if things couldn’t get any worse the landlord has issued an eviction notice as the family is three days late with their rent as his mother cannot work due to her cancer (an entirely operable tumour they cannot afford to have treated). This suits the landlord just fine as with the last family evicted the building can be bulldozed to make way for lucrative offices or condos.
Fool is persuaded by his sister’s boyfriend Leroy (a pre-Pulp Fiction Rhames) to join his plan to rob the landlord. Leroy has due to a chance postal mix up been able to find their address and has heard that they have significant cash stored somewhere on their property. With his family in dire economic straits the boy sees little choice but to throw in with Leroy. What neither of them knows is that the landlords are a pair of demented middle class psychopaths played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (Ed and Nadine from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks). As Fool tells their daughter Alice (Langer), “Your father is one evil mother. Actually your mother is one evil mother too!”
McGill and Robie’s characters are unnamed and only referred to as ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ in the films credits, but their suburban home is a house of horrors and once inside Leroy and Fool become first trapped then hunted by the couple and their vicious Rottweiler (an outstanding canine performance worthy of a Palm Dog). Alice has never set foot outside and lives in terror of her mother and father’s anger. Although she is her mother’s ‘princess’ she lives in fear of the fate of the couples other children – boys who talked back or were otherwise insolent – who are kept penned in the basement and fed on… well this is a horror film, what do you think they are fed on?
This is one of Craven’s most undervalued and to my mind best films. The practice of retooling and updating traditional fairy tales has become something of a cliché over the last few years, but it was a novel idea in 1991, and it also allowed Craven to deal with some very dark themes that in a more traditional horror picture could have resulted in a film too harsh to be commercial. Child abuse, racism, exploitation, the extraction of wealth from the ghetto by the middle class, all themes that if overt would make for a very hard commercial sell are expertly hidden within a very entertaining genre framework. McGill and Robie are fantastic as the villains; McGill – an actor with an inexplicably short career – uses his imposing physicality and gruff southern drawl to excellent effect. Robie appears like a cross between Cruella Deville and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, with a thick layer of foundation, ruby red lipstick and exaggerated eyebrows. The pair ham it up spectacularly, elevating their characters to a level of deliberate pantomime which hides really twisted sexual paraphilias.
The house in which most of the action takes place is like something out of a Scooby Doo episode gone bad; full of hidden passages, booby traps, cellar stairs that turn into death slides at the flick of a switch. The first warning that all is not well comes when Fool notices the windows are padlocked from the outside, but Leroy is too blinded by greed to pay heed. The house is a prison, and it locks shut like the jaws of a Venus fly trap the minute they enter.
In the lead role Adams (who was best known for his role as Zeke ‘Baby Bad’ Michael in Moonwalker) is pretty great, just the right side of appealing without being cutesy, and as a child he has to survive by his wits and guile rather than brawn. Fool has some help from Roach (a great Sean Whalen) one of the discarded children who has escaped into the house’s walls.
Sometimes Craven pushes the fairy tale elements a little too far, obscuring his message. The middle-class suburb in which the horror-house resides is not really well established and the house itself is so obviously creepy from the outside one would not be surprised if The Munsters resided there. There are a few points late in the film where the action becomes a little too frenetic and it’s hard to distinguish what is actually going on. In particular a sequence in a chimney is clumsily mounted. But this is minor stuff, overall The People Under The Stairs is a film that deserves a re-evaluation, it belongs right up there with the likes of Scream and Elm Street among Craven’s best films.
Portions of this article were published as a review of The People Under The Stairs on the Chris and Phil Presents website (now closed).