Read This Before You Watch “The People Under the Stairs”

Like his fellow white horror George Romero did with “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) writer-director Wes Craven places a Black hero at the center of his 1991 horror film “The People Under the Stairs”; however, unlike Romero, Craven clearly wrote and cast the lead role for a young Black actor, Brandon Quintin Adams as the 13-year-old Fool, whose disliked given name is Poindexter. As such, we can assume that horror auteur Craven intends some sort of direct commentary about race and race relations.

Both the initial setting (an apartment building in “the ghetto”) and the set-up (evil white landlords trying to evict their poor Black tenant to gentrify the neighborhood) support our suspicion that overt commentary on race is deliberate. Similarly, Fool’s mentor figure Leroy (Ving Rhames) could merely have been a Hollywood standard-issue Black criminal, but his insights and his outfits indicate greater significance to the film.

In fact, we can’t help but be struck by Craven’s shift toward cast that includes many (if still not a majority) of Black characters. His own seminal masterpiece “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1983) didn’t have any Black characters. Sadly, that absence of diverse representation was far from unusual in the horror films of the 1980s, and somewhat to Craven’s credit not one but two Black characters actually survive the third entry in the “Nightmare” franchise, “Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” (1987), though by that point Craven developed the story and co-wrote the script with Bruce Wagner (also white) before handing off direction of the film to Chuck Russell (also white).

Of course, none of these observations about the racial identity of Craven and his fellow film makers are meant to discount or to disparage their work to include more diverse racial representation in their films. Still, white writers and white directors are likely to portray Black characters and race relations, as well as social and cultural issues of race, in different ways than Black directors and Black directors do.

Craven’s push for inclusion, his choice to represent Black characters in his film, including a young Black hero, and his willingness to tackle serious social issues (if somewhat obliquely) are all admirable. As we’ve frequently noted in this horror series (and our previous ones), representation matters.

That said, representing Black characters is not the same as giving them voice. Only Black writers and Black directors can do that with authority and authenticity. Interestingly, Jordan Peele is reported to be producing a remake of Craven’s “People Under the Stairs.” The differences between the two versions will be telling.

All of which remains essential for us to keep in mind as we watch this film, especially if we consider Craven’s “People Under the Stairs” as something of a response to Spike Lee’s watershed 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” about racial tensions, police violence, and a street riot.

Okay, I’ll admit that on the surface it can seem like a bit of a stretch to compare Craven’s somewhat schlocky horror flick with its outre characters and almost slapstick madness to Lee’s more self-consciously serious independent film with believable characters and a ticking time-bomb of real-life social tensions.

But I think that’s exactly what Craven is doing here. He’s replying to Lee.

Admittedly, according to IMDb Craven claims he was inspired to write the script by a news story about how police investigating a domestic burglary discovered that parents had locked their children under the stairs and never allowed them to go outside. That might be true, but I think it’s also a bit of a red herring, at least thematically. Those are plot point in Craven’s film, but the police in “People Under the Stairs” find nothing when they investigate and search the house. They apologize to the “nice” rich white couple before they leave shaking their heads.

Lee’s film came out just two years before this one and made a huge splash. People watched “Do the Right Thing” and they talked about it.

Also, consider how little music there is in “People Under the Stairs.” There’s barely any, whether score or soundtrack. But as the final credits roll we hear a rap song called “Do the Right Thing” by Readhead Kingpin & the F.B.I. (perhaps channeling Young M.C. of that era). That song serves as a giant Easter Egg that invites us to think about Craven’s movie as “calling back” to Lee’s film.

To be clear, despite their shared title the composition of that song and the production of Lee’s film had nothing to do with each, but the debut album A Shade of Red by British rapper Readhead Kingpin with “Do the Right Thing” as its first single was coincidentally released the very same summer as Lee’s movie, which famously featured Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

Clearly, the phrase “Do the Right Thing” resonated with the zeitgeist of the late 80s because the song and movie undeniably address similar issues and themes, a resonance that wouldn’t have been lost on Craven as he chose to feature the song in his own film two years later.

If you haven’t seen Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” or haven’t watched it for a long time, I encourage you to watch it. I think using it as a touchstone will help open up our discussion of “People Under the Stairs.”

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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