31 Days of Horror 2014 – The People Under the Stairs (1991)

OK, so maybe I am a little biased towards blood, violence, and anyone who was on Twin Peaks, but I was a huge fan of this film long before I was into those things. I must have rented this movie on VHS a hundred times as a kid (what were you thinking, Mom?) and watched it over and over. Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t remember anything. I mean, I still get lost in the city I’ve been living in my entire life. But for some reason, this movie made itself right at home in my longterm memory bank, and when I rewatched it a few weeks ago I could easily still recite every line, recall the innocence of Fool, the relentlessness of Roach, and all the ways that “Mommy and Daddy” (who are actually -ew- brother and sister) scared the absolute crap out of me. What was it that left such an impression?

Poindexter Williams, better known as Fool and played by Brandon Adams, and his family rent an apartment and are being evicted. Fool’s uncle Leroy (Ving Rhames) convinces his friend Spenser and Fool to help him rob the Robesons, not knowing the danger and horror awaiting them within that house.

Wendy Robie (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the 2014 Twin Peaks Festival) is phenomenal as Mrs. Robeson, aka Mommy. The way she smiles sweetly, while still sending shivers down your spine and turning on all the don’t-trust-her alarm bells in your head. The way she makes dressing her daughter Alice and brushing her hair, these loving acts, seem so ice cold.

And then we have Daddy (Everett McGill) who gets stress headaches and beats his daughter to relieve the tension. I’ll never forget this exchange between Mommy and Daddy as Alice cowers in the corner:

D: (mentions a robbery at his store) “I’m very tense from this.”

M: “You have one of your headaches?”

D: “Oh… Very, very tense about this.”

M: “Alice has been bad. She’s been feeding that thing between the walls again. Remember not to bruise her face.”

D: (removes his belt and advances on the cowering Alice) “Bad girls burn in Hell.”

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The thing in the walls that Mommy referred to is actually Roach, unforgettably played by Sean Whalen, who had his tongue removed for speaking evil. Roach was one of the “People Under the Stairs” – abducted children who did not follow the see/hear/speak no evil rule of the house. Roach managed to escape the Robesons, but not their home, and takes pleasure in tormenting them by continuing to evade capture.

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I think what draws me to this film again and again, besides the killer cast (see what I did there?), is the underlying theme of things not always, in fact rarely, being what they seem. The Robesons seem like the perfect parents, a perfect family, to the outside world. And really, what’s a more chilling thought than not being able to trust in what you think you know?

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