FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The People Under The Stairs

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Fool (Brandon Adams) is forced to accompany Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spencer (Jeremy Roberts) on one of their burgling expeditions by a raise in rent that could see him and his sick mother evicted from their apartment. They pick the Robeson house, their grasping landlords, and Fool follows Leroy into the house when Spencer doesn't return from casing the place. Once inside, they realise they got more than they bargained for; there's people trapped in the basement, a boy running riot through the walls and a vicious dog that's got the taste for men. As Fool tries to escape, he meets Alice (AJ Langer), the little girl kidnapped by Mommy (Wendy Robie) and Daddy Robeson (Everett McGill) and kept as their own, and the pair agree to try and make a run for it.

The film's a difficult one to characterise, covering a lot of genre ground in its 100 minute runtime. There's a horror in there obviously with the sadistic ways of Mommy and Daddy fuelled by a religious mania and, as this is Wes Craven, there's liberal lashings of black comedy throughout. What struck me about it most though was how it functioned as a 20th century, almost Grimm-like fairytale as Fool takes on the hero role and attempts to rescue the pretty young Alice from her tormentors. He sees it as something he has to do, redeeming himself as the child burglar by becoming the boy who reveals the Robesons' to the world, gets the money for his family and saving Alice in the process. 

There's a few nods to famous children's stories here; Roach (Sean Whalen), the boy who escaped into the walls to torment the Robesons, has all the cheek and adaptability of Peter Pan. Alice's name is an obvious nod to her Wonderland-visiting literary counterpart whilst her escape with Fool often feels like a Hansel and Gretel style fable, the pair of them lured in by the promise of safety or money respectively and threatened instead. There's even a moment when the Mommy puts her head in the oven to look for Alice. If only Fool were there to kick her in and have done with it at the time.

It also helps the film's gleeful grotesque with Mommy and Daddy like any witch or nasty huntsman you've ever read about. Robie is particularly good as the seemingly genteel Mommy, capable of turning into a knife-wielding Mrs Bates wannabe at any second. Both she and McGill dial it up to eleven throughout their performances, but the film around them is so mad that it only ever works. They may be considerably more adult, but they feel like they could've walked out of a Grimm fairytale full of wicked step-parents, although Daddy's black gimp suit probably wouldn't have featured there. (American Horror Story really does steal everything, doesn't it?)

The house itself is a nice twist on the idea of a haunted house, full of traps, trick staircases and arms that might come out of the walls and grab you. Before you realise that there are people in the basement and Roach running around, it feels like the entire place is alive, full to the brim of stories and nightmares just waiting for Fool to discover them. It gives a nice unpredictable feel to the proceedings; even when it seems that Fool and Alice are safe in a room or wall somewhere, there's the suggestion that at any moment, their environment could switch and become the thing that's most immediately threatening. It certainly keeps you on your toes.

It's the first of two Wes Craven films on our list this month and it's an occasion to once again mourn his passing by celebrating the works he left behind. The People Under The Stairs displays much of his wit and inventiveness and, though one of the more forgotten films in his canon, still an impressive display from a horror impresario.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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