In 1987, notorious L.A. slumlord Dr. Milton Avol was sentenced to spend 30 days in one of the disgusting, squalid units he refused to maintain. The ophidian doctor had already served a month in jail, but one judge thought this wasn’t enough and slapped an ankle monitor on Avol and threw him in one of his own vermin-infested apartments to get a taste of what exactly he was doing to his tenants.
The punishment was poetic justice, a small rebuke to the glut of slumlords destroying entire communities in large U.S. cities, especially here in Los Angeles.
A few years later, in 1991, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs would dramatize this form of justifiable class warfare, where the poor, neglected, sick and abused rise back to drag the ruling class through the deplorable hell they created. The People Under the Stairs is a goofy, campy, woke, gory and imperfect fairy tale, but above all, it’s a comedy: a satire of late capitalism, specifically in an L.A. run ragged by the free market of the ’80s and the violence it created.
The People Under the Stairs follows 24 hours or so in the life of Fool (’90s child star Brandon Adams), a broke black kid from South L.A. who learns he and his sick mom and sister are being evicted — on his birthday. Leroy (Ving Rhames) comes to Fool with a plan to rob the very slumlords who are kicking them out (the unnamed “Man” and “Woman” characters) of the gold and money they’ve been hoarding in their basement.
Leroy and Fool (and another con man who only lasts a reel or so) eventually break into the slumlords' house, disgusting in its own right. The Man and Woman character were played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie after Craven had seen and enjoyed their performances as the depraved Big Ed and Nadine Hurley on Twin Peaks. We eventually find out that the Man and Woman are siblings and incestuous lovers (the Man calling his sister/wife “Mother” echoes another real-life psychopath) and that they are puritanical maniacs who keep “bad” male children in their basement. These failsons are the eponymous people under the stairs; they're not the villains but, rather, just more victims of psychopathic greed and power lust.
Alice, the Man and Woman’s daughter (played by a pre-Rayanne Graff A.J. Langer who, incidentally, married into British nobility), helps Fool navigate all the house’s trap doors and booby traps to eventually escape and return with members of the community to literally destroy the oppressor’s home and redistribute their wealth.
The people under the stairs, starved and turned into cannibals, were the perceived threat but were ultimately revealed to be good, which is an interesting flip of your expectations, because the trailer misleads you to think they're the villains.
You’ll also notice that the marketers left the class consciousness and politics out of the trailer and other promotional materials in favor of framing this as a more straightforward horror film. The film made money and was received generally positively by critics but was by no means a huge critical darling. Its violence and slimy veneer — like most gory material — made it too offputting for some critics to take seriously.
It’s a minor cult classic, and many critics still like writing about the film as a keyhole into the ’80s, with the Man and Woman characters often said to be proxies for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, which is a fine reading. But they're more analogous to guys like Donald Sterling and Donald Trump (’80s Trump, specifically) than to Reagan. Reagan's violently stupid and reckless non-governance opened the door to charlatans of all stripes, but development hucksters like Avol or Sterling last century and faux-Italian developer Geoff Palmer and Rick Caruso (the schlock artist behind the Grove and the Americana at Brand) this century are the real unrepentant villains this film is making a mockery of.
One of the most tangible conflicts for Angelenos since the ’80s has been this ongoing war between property renters and property owners. Open up any local publication in the last few years, and you'll see horror stories of illegal evictions, cash for keys and all sorts of other odious practices and crimes committed by those who develop and own the city's most important properties: our homes. People was an indictment of an entire class of mostly white trust-fund kids who grew up and made our communities unlivable (and continue to do so). Unfortunately, the film did little to stave off these widespread bad practices in L.A., which actually seem to have gotten worse in recent years. But it was influential.
Jordan Peele recently cited People as one of several influences on his 2017 race/class horror breakout Get Out. Peele would have been about the same age as Fool if he saw the film when it came out. Like Get Out, The People Under the Stairs portrays a world where rich white people are far more nefarious than any petty criminal of color that white America is so terrified of. In fact, Craven was inspired to write the script based on a news story where a white suburbanite saw black people breaking into a suburban house to rob it and called the cops. When the cops came, they found that the homeowner had been keeping feral children in the house as prisoners.
The fact that the film was released less than a year before the L.A. unrest or uprising (or “L.A. riots” if you prefer the popular language of the oppressor) was no coincidence either. The chaos that ensued on April 29, 1992, was only one node in a decades-long succession of fucked-up things happening to L.A.’s working-class neighborhoods of color.
It's no surprise, then, that when the (white) police in People arrive after the midpoint, they are extremely unhelpful. Starting with a civil liberty–violating crackdown on gangs and undesirables during the 1984 Olympics by Daryl Gates and into the late ’80s with efforts like Operation Hammer, the decade saw the swift militarization of the LAPD. By the end of the ’80s, cops were either going into the ’hood with riot gear or not going at all. The police, after all, only protect property owners. That was the context for why going to the police for help never worked out for Fool. When the cops do show up, they're quick to believe the Man and Woman's poorly constructed lies. Because they're cops.
The People Under the Stairs also came out a year after Home Alone, and in many ways it serves as a complement to the story of a rich white brat who is left home to fend off the evil, burgling Wet Bandits. However, in People we’re asked to sympathize with the burglars, who are stealing out of necessity because they’re getting hosed in a system that would prefer them poor, sick or dead to having anything resembling a fair shake at life. Home Alone is goofy as shit, but it’s an ultraviolent family classic because suburban parents and kids love rooting for the vicious punishment of dopey, cartoonish burglars. The People Under the Stairs, on the other hand, is an adult comedy posing as a horror fairy tale for children.
The obvious, sad truth is that Los Angeles doesn’t seem to have improved much since the early ’90s. Class disparity is worse than it was then. L.A. median income has been stagnant for ages. L.A police are still shooting and killing people of color at rates that lead the nation. And we have a senile Reaganite in the White House (again). If we can’t talk openly about the complete and utter failures of conservative free-market capitalism and compromised corporate Democratic policy in L.A.’s recent history, we are destined to be trapped in the bleak basement dungeon of L.A., the “timeless American nightmare” that The People Under the Stairs so deftly and hilariously captured.