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Friday, October 18, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 16: The People Under the Stairs

I've been getting a ton of positive feedback for my Halloween Horror project (thanks, everybody!), but there's been one consistent question: Jess, why are you watching crappy horror movies? Well, kids, it's because I didn't pick out 31 amazing horror movies in advance; instead, I wanted to see where my gut took me. Since the horror genre is wildly inconsistent -- perhaps more inconsistent than most other genres -- I've watched my fair share of garbage this month. But the people have spoken, and they aren't interested in the worst of the genre. Fair enough, I say! From here on out, I'm going to watch better movies -- maybe not A+ movies, but at least B- and above.

The People Under the Stairs

All that being said, The People Under the Stairs (1991) isn't Wes Craven's best work. As a writer and director, Craven tends to stick to more terrifying places; even the dark humor in films like Scream or A Nightmare on Elm Street is paired with legitimately scary elements. Instead, The People Under the Stairs goes full camp with mixed results.

The film explores a modern house of horrors: brother and sister couple Mommy and Daddy keep kidnapped children hostage, holding them to the highest standards of religious goodness and cleanliness. As seen in the above still, children should be seen, not heard. Those who don't meet their impossible standards are physically mutilated and locked in the basement, never to escape. While Mommy and Daddy are able to keep their disturbed lifestyle a secret for years, their cover is blown as disenfranchised neighbors break into the house for good-old-fashioned financial revenge.

The chief source of comedy in the film comes from the portrayal of Mommy and Daddy. You may recognize the actors Wendy Robie and Evertt McGill from their portrayals of Nadine and Big Ed Hurley on Twin Peaks. With the tension of the Hurleys' relationship, it's not too surprising that they would then torture seemingly dozens of innocent people. Like in Twin Peaks, their performances go over the top with some seriously ridiculous characterization: Mommy frequently has the styling of Mommy Dearest, and Daddy wears a rubber suit that would make the cast of American Horror Story blush.

That doesn't mean that The People Under the Stairs is charmless. There's something to be said for a horror movie that has an African-American protagonist, especially when the film criticizes the economic inequalities people face every day. The staunch political views of Mommy and Daddy are also all too reminiscent of today's Tea Party, which feels even scarier given the recent political turmoil in America. Truly, The People Under the Stairs knows exactly the type of movie it wants to be, and that's exactly what it achieves: a campy film with lots of laugh and barely any scares.

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