Monday 25 March 2019

On a Thousand Walls #17: The People Under the Stairs (1991)

So. I'm a Bram Stoker Award Nominee. We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror got the nomination for Superior Achievement in nonfiction after all, and holy crap, is all I can say. No chance of going to Michigan for the ceremony, but still. I get a certificate and everything. In the meantime, let's get back on the horse writingwise.

I haven't managed much the last couple of months, for various reasons, not least a bad case of shingles, but let's start strong and ideological and everything with Wes Craven's chucklesome yet political horrorshow,which is a film about racism (which means that people in it do racism) and features some miserable child abuse (so you have been warned). Of course there are spoilers.

“Ghetto” is one of those “when in doubt” terms,one of those words that might be deeply offensive and even a little bit racist, and might not be, depending on when it's said, where it's said, how it's said and who's saying it. The original ghettos were the segregated homes of Jewish communities, and would eventually be the terrain on which the middle act of the Holocaust was perpetrated; in American parlance, the term got mainly used in the seventies through the nineties and beyond to refer to those areas of American cities where poor Black people lived, and the word carries signifiers of poverty, and misery, and crime. Now, ever since ghettos have existed, the term’s been used figuratively, but in recent years, it’s become more and more tied to the Black experience in the USA. And it has moved beyond the street level slang, and it’s a political thing now. The original ghetto of Venice was full of wealthy merchants and bankers, the Merchants of Venice, for real. The Warsaw ghetto was home to desperate resistance fighters in a community marked for extermination. But when you say “ghetto” now, you mean urban degradation, and you mean African-Americans. You mean a degree of poverty that is literally unknown in Europe.

(Footnote: Seriously, I think Americans are often shocked to discover how much poorer poor Americans are than poor people in pretty much any other “developed” country. Except possibly the UK.)

Although there’s been some reclamation work done on it – Busta Rhymes’s “In the Ghetto” as a corrective to Elvis’s song of the same name; “Ghetto Fabulous” being a thing – It’s become the sort of word you need to have the right to use. So a few years ago, when Quentin Tarantino accepted Ennio Morricone’s Golden Globe and talked about how film composers were “that ghetto” compared to mainstream classical composers (and it was obvious he meant that film composers are wrongly seen as somehow less respectable), Jamie Foxx, presenting, walked straight to the mic after Tarantino had left it, and simply repeated the word “ghetto” and everyone knew exactly what he meant, and of course Tarantino didn’t mean it to be offensive, but just because you don’t mean a thing to be offensive doesn’t make it not offensive, right?

The best-known cinematic and TV representations of the ghetto, then, from the early films of Spike Lee through to The Wire, I suppose, produce tropes that more or less define “ghetto” in our imagination, and even if they're strictly factual observations that doesn't mean the picture they present is accurate, because accuracy isn't about details, it's about the wholeness. If you only show (accurately) bad things about a community, you lie with facts. You distort the truth. Facts are the easiest thing a person can lie with.

So the ghetto of TV and film, Ghetto, which I'm writing with a capital G so you know I mean the thing on the screen, not the actual real world social phenomenon, is a place where the kids are feral, and the dads are deadbeat. It's a place where dealers and pimps hustle on every corner, where half of the buildings are boarded up, and half of the ones that aren't contain crack dens and the other half hold families that are too big for the space.
And although Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs begins with a Tarot reading, it immediately places us in an absolutely boilerplate cinematic Ghetto, a place with tenements and crack dens and crime and poverty, all present and correct. In a lot of ways, it's about this world, and the systems that bring it into being. But in order to be about this world, it throws in as many of the clich├ęs as it can, and we see them all within five minutes of the credits ending.

Our main character is a kid known as Fool (Brandon Adams), who’s actually called Poindexter, except his sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) is an enthusiast for the Tarot, and sees her brother as the invincible, visionary, reckless 0 Trump of the Major Arcana. Things are tough for Fool’s family. Mom (Connie Marie Brazelton) has cancer and – because this is the USA – there’s no way they’re going to afford care. They’re getting evicted because the landlords, being predators and parasites, demand triple payment of rent for being three days in arrears. Meanwhile, the rest of the family isn’t doing much better.
Ruby: He don’t need that kinda opportunity. He’s a good kid, let’s keep it that way.
Leroy: Ain’t working for him any better than the rest of you. Outta seven, three’s already dead. Then there’s you, baby, turning tricks on the street, William a crack addict and what’s th’ other one’s name, what’s he in jail for, assault?
Ruby: Washington, and he didn’t do nothing.
Leroy: He tried to put food on the damn table. And that’s what I’m trying to teach the boy to do.
Ruby: He wants to be a doctor.
Leroy: You can’t even pay rent. How the hell you gonna afford to send him to medical school?
This isn’t subtle. Not remotely. In fact, what this is is efficient. But as we’ll see it has the very odd effect of turning this awful stereotyped movie Ghetto into something more.

So local criminal Leroy (legitimate movie legend Ving Rhames) has knocked over a liquor store, because of course he has, but in so doing discovered first that the owners of it, the Robesons (Twin Peaks alumni Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), are also the landlords of Fool’s tenement and second, that the Robesons have a stash of gold coins that they have been looking to sell. Leroy wants to burgle the house, and his plan requires a kid to work for him as a scout (literally, in fact – they disguise him in a bear scout uniform). And this is where Fool comes in.

So Leroy, Fool and Leroy’s (white) mate Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) head on up to the big old house where the Robesons live, a disused funeral parlour.
The moment the Robesons appear, and they appear early on more or less exactly as they are throughout the film, the film's tone shifts wildly. They are from a different world.

They live in decaying American Gothic excess. They're greedy and selfish – and perverted. And for many of the adults in the Ghetto, for example Grandpa Booker (Bill Cobb), it’s common knowledge.
Grandpa Booker: Meanwhile, you be careful. That brother-sister act you messing with are evil. Plain and simple.
Fool: Wait a minute, brother and sister?
Grandpa Booker: Brother and sister. Tail end of the craziest family you ever heard of. Every generation more insane than the one before. Started out as a family running a funeral home. Sellin’ cheap coffins for expensive prices. They they got their fingers into real estate. Started making a lotta money, takin’ over people’s homes. More money they got, the greedier they got. The greedier they got, the crazier they got. All sortsa rumours about what’s gone on in that place. Never proved it ‘cause the police don’t take it serious. But believe me, when I was a kid, none of us ever walked past that house.
Like many American Gothic villains, appearances are everything to them. Normality, perversely, is everything to them. And of course, while theirs is a life of incest, child abuse (both physical, and, it is hinted, sexual) and social parasitism (who, like many real-world parasites, believe themselves to be the providers of social good and their victims to be the parasites), their wealth and whiteness makes them immune to investigation by the police. Twice in the film, the police come to see them and both times they’re easily brushed off – but Fool uses the second to his advantage. He knows the way that white people and the police interact; and when the doors open for the law, they open for him, too.
Their greed is tied with hate: their predatory rent policy is a deliberate attempt to push out Fool's family – the last in the tenement – so they can tear the place down and install “clean” people, and by “clean” people, read white people. They want to gentrify the Ghetto.

The normality of the Ghetto is poverty; the Robesons’ filthy lucre is the filthiest, because it is stolen from the poor. Later we'll see that they have it in literal piles, in the basement.
Fool: No wonder there's no money in the ghetto!
The Ghetto as it's shown, then, is a fair representation of the caricature that rich white people have of poor Black people. The Robesons, conversely, are a representation of an idea that poor Black people have of rich white people. Anyone who's been watching American politics in the last couple years will not have a problem in grasping that, for all the grit of the Ghetto, it's the latter that's the more accurate.

And the Robesons have monsters under the stairs. Also, literally in the cupboards and closets, because skeletons are passive; they don't grab you. From the very first, though, the monsters are more sympathetic than the Robesons. The first we see is a hand, sticking out of a duct (a probably accidental, Addams Family moment), trying to help their cowed, abused "daughter" Alice (AJ Langer), who is about to be beaten for feeding “that thing”. Before we meet the titular People Under the Stairs, Alice will tell Fool that Mother and Father have for years been stealing children, and attempting to bring them up as their own, and when they act out, Father has “cut the bad parts out” and that's not explained but we're talking icepick lobotomies here, we're talking tongues sliced off with shears, mutilated eyes and ears. And then they're dumped into the cellars to go feral. Alice's only ally in the house is the tongueless Roach (Sean Whalen), whose small size allows him access to nooks and crannies in the house that the others can't reach and who is the Moby Dick to Father's debased Captain Ahab (and Captain Ahab is of course the most American Gothic of antagonists).
The Robeson's “normality” is a sham, and presented as that from the very second they appear. And this is classic American Gothic, and the big central joke of The Addams Family, only here it's played (not entirely) straight for horror, that they don't realise that they're the ones that are weird. “Be sure not to mark the face,” Mother advises Father as he unloops his belt – the classic attitude of the corrupt. And of course nothing is more corrupt than child abuse. Alice alone escapes the fate of the others by telling Mother what she wants to hear, but the price she pays for that is telling and brutal.

These rapacious parasites who fuck up their kids neither understand children nor care for them. For me, and yeah, this is a personal thing, I'll make no bones of that, one of the single creepiest, most repellent moments of the film is the scene near the beginning when Mother forces Alice to say “I love you, Mother,” as a rote utterance after being made to wear a ghastly pinafore dress.

Neither the Ghetto nor the American Gothic are real worlds, exactly, but it's with the Ghetto then where our sympathies lie. Leroy is a bad guy, but he doesn't actually target anyone (in the eyes of the film) who doesn't thoroughly deserve it. He's planning a classic home invasion, and fully expects Spenser to double cross him, but he's doing a Robin Hood on the people who are, you know, robbing the ‘Hood.

Leroy and Spenser are no match for the Robesons. Spenser gets dispatched in short order, and if Leroy survives a little longer, it's because he has Fool with him. Spenser and Leroy are what the Robesons expect: small time crooks from the streets. But the Robesons can't cope with children. Fool is small enough to hide in the cavities, innocent enough to confuse the corrupt, and brave enough to face evil, for the very reason that he doesn't entirely understand it. The Fool is a figure of occult significance for that reason. Fool survives, escapes, and then, in the final act of the film, goes back. And the community follows him. Fool's return is for the sake of liberation (to free Alice and the People Under the Stairs), it's for redress (to regain the community's money, and for purer motives than Leroy's), and it's to overthrow the tyrants whose greed, prejudice and abuse made the Ghetto what it is in the first place.
The fictional white monsters of the American Gothic are the reason for the Ghetto. Their literal pile of cash, rotting in the cellar, is the stolen wealth of the poor. Obviously that's a metaphor; obviously a fiction versus a fiction maps onto the real versus the real. And only insurrection can redress that. Fool, an idealist, a child, is the agent of revolt. Fool leads the People Under the Stairs – who you could imagine as representing both the oppressed and discarded workers and the dirty secrets that the ruling class depends on – to rise out of the darkness and join the rebel crowd. The People Under the Stairs ends with revolution.

And I keep saying this, but this is why genre fiction matters. Because you can't say this stuff in films that win Academy Awards: dreadful, self-satisfied films like Green Book, the sort of films that say literally nothing other than "look at me, I'm an important film, isn't racism bad?" win Academy Awards. We need genre, because genre can be revolutionary. We need genre to foment insurrection. The People Under the Stairs hides genuinely revolutionary content behind stereotypes, behind a grimly droll EC Comics horrorshow which, even if you don't get any of this out of it at all, supplies an hour and a half of thrilling, bloody fun.

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated book We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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