The People Under the Stairs (1991)

R | 102 mins | Horror | 1 November 1991

Director:

Wes Craven

Writer:

Wes Craven

Cinematographer:

Sandi Sissel

Editor:

James Coblentz

Production Designer:

Bryan Jones

Production Company:

Alive Films
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HISTORY

The deranged adults played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill are not given proper names in the film. While they occasionally refer to each other as “Mama” and “Daddy,” the cast roster at the end of the movie lists their names as, simply, “Woman” and “Man.” A sign in the mansion’s front yard reading, “Robeson Funeral Home Est. 1896,” suggests that “Robeson” is their family name.
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, as well as other contemporary sources, The People Under the Stairs was inspired by a 1978 news story in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. After reading about the discovery of three hostage children at a burglarized property, writer-director Wes Craven promptly drafted a “first act” detailing “Fool” and “Leroy’s” break-in at a decrepit mansion, and their confrontation with some imprisoned adolescents inside. However, Craven became involved in other film projects and had to “set the idea aside” for a decade. On 9 Nov 1988, a Var news brief indicated that the director would make The People Under the Stairs as part of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films.
       Although a 5 Feb 1990 DV news brief suggested that the film might be shot in “grim-looking” East Berlin, Germany, a 16 Apr 1991 HR production chart stated that principal photography began 18 Mar 1991 in Los Angeles, CA, with additional filming to take place in New York, NY. The film’s large Craftsman-style mansion was located in a residential neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. Interiors were entirely reconstructed on sound stages, however, so that the crawl space between walls could be enlarged to a full ... More Less

The deranged adults played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill are not given proper names in the film. While they occasionally refer to each other as “Mama” and “Daddy,” the cast roster at the end of the movie lists their names as, simply, “Woman” and “Man.” A sign in the mansion’s front yard reading, “Robeson Funeral Home Est. 1896,” suggests that “Robeson” is their family name.
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, as well as other contemporary sources, The People Under the Stairs was inspired by a 1978 news story in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. After reading about the discovery of three hostage children at a burglarized property, writer-director Wes Craven promptly drafted a “first act” detailing “Fool” and “Leroy’s” break-in at a decrepit mansion, and their confrontation with some imprisoned adolescents inside. However, Craven became involved in other film projects and had to “set the idea aside” for a decade. On 9 Nov 1988, a Var news brief indicated that the director would make The People Under the Stairs as part of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films.
       Although a 5 Feb 1990 DV news brief suggested that the film might be shot in “grim-looking” East Berlin, Germany, a 16 Apr 1991 HR production chart stated that principal photography began 18 Mar 1991 in Los Angeles, CA, with additional filming to take place in New York, NY. The film’s large Craftsman-style mansion was located in a residential neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. Interiors were entirely reconstructed on sound stages, however, so that the crawl space between walls could be enlarged to a full two feet. Even with the accommodation, Craven acknowledged in a 1–7 Nov 1991 Village View article that shooting was nearly “physically impossible.” To navigate the cramped quarters, crew members invented the “DoggieCam,” a remote-controlled miniature camera dolly that was able to roll swiftly through narrow passageways on ten-inch bicycle wheels. Additional materials in AMPAS library files show that “Day 55” of production was scheduled for 30 May 1991, close to the end of filming.
       The film opened 1 Nov 1991 and earned $5.5 million during its first three days in theaters, according to a 6 Nov 1991 DV advertisement. Reviews on 4 Nov 1991 were mixed. Although the LAT praised the “terrifically effective scare show” for its “superior cinematography” and “deliberately hilarious” performances, DV wrote off the “ham-handed horror flick” as “nothing more than an old-style haunted house film.” The movie went on to gross $24 million, according to John Kenneth Muir’s 1998 monograph, Wes Craven: The Art of Horror.
       End credits include the following acknowledgments: “Special thanks: Madison Ruth; The American Human [sic] Society; Bea Wallace.” End credits also note that: “Illustrations from the Rider-Waite Tarot deck reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stanford CT 06902 USA, copyright 1971 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc., further reproduction prohibited,” and, “The animals used in this film were in no way mistreated and all scenes in which they appeared were under strict supervision with the utmost concern for their handling.” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
5 Feb 1990.
---
Daily Variety
4 Nov 1991
p. 2, 16.
Daily Variety
6 Nov 1991.
---
Hollywood Drama-Logue
7-13 Nov 1991.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 Apr 1991.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Nov 1991
p. 5, 17.
Los Angeles Times
2 Dec 1990.
---
Los Angeles Times
4 Nov 1991
Calendar, p. 6.
New York Times
2 Nov 1991
p. 17.
Variety
9 Nov 1988.
---
Variety
11 Nov 1991
p. 55.
Village View (Los Angeles)
1-7 Nov 1991
p. 9, 19.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Alive Films Presents
A Wes Craven Film
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d unit dir
2d 2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Co-prod
Assoc prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Addl op
B cam 1st a.c.
Steadicam op
Steadicam op
Steadicam asst
Steadicam asst
Loader
Still photog
Video playback
Best boy elec
Rigging gaffer
Key grip
Dolly grip
Best boy grip
Rigging grip
Dir of photog, 2d unit
1st asst cam, 2d unit
2d asst cam, 2d unit
Gaffer, 2d unit
Gaffer, 2d unit
Cameras and lenses by
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Storyboard artist
FILM EDITORS
Addl ed
Post-prod coord
1st asst ed
2d asst ed
2d asst ed
Post-prod asst
Negative cutting
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Asst set dec
Leadperson
On-set dresser
Prop master
Asst prop
2d asst prop
2d asst prop
Standby EFX carpenter
Standby carpenter
Standby painter
Set const
Const foreman
Swing gang
Swing gang
Swing gang
Swing gang
Swing gang
Swing gang
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ward supv
Set costumer
Man's leather outfit by
of Wayne's Leatherack
MUSIC
Mus
Scoring synchronization
Addl orchestral mus by
SOUND
Sd mixer
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
ADR ed
ADR ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Foley artist
Foley artist
Loop group
ADR mixer
ADR rec
Foley mixer
Supv rerec mixer
Rerec mixer
Rerec mixer
Dolby Stereo consultant
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff supv
Key eff coord
Spec eff project coord
Eff tech
Eff tech
Mechanical dog eff
Mechanical dog eff
Dog eff crew
Dog eff crew
Dog eff crew
Dog eff crew
Dog eff crew
Dog eff crew
EFX supv
EFX supv
EFX supv
Key eff tech
Key eff tech
Eff asst
Eff asst
Fiberglass molds
Title des by
Title des by
Opticals by
MAKEUP
Makeup artist
Hairstylist
Asst makeup
Spec makeup eff
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Prod coord
Asst prod coord
Scr supv
Prod accountant
Asst prod accountant
Extra's casting
Extra's casting
Asst to Wes Craven and Marianne Maddalena
Asst to Wes Craven and Marianne Maddalena
Loc asst
Casting asst
Animals supplied by
Head trainer
Trainer
Trainer
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Transportation coord
Transportation capt
Driver
Driver
Unit pub
Studio teacher
First aid
Catering by
Stage hand
Bonding company
Prod attorneys
Insurance provided by
Financing company
Financing company
Studio facilities
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stand-in
Stand-in
Stand-in
Stand-in
Stand-in
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col timing
Col timing
Col by
SOURCES
MUSIC
"Lullaby For A Little Tree," courtesy of Southern Music Publising [sic] Co., Inc.
"Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima For 52 String Instruments," written by K. Penderecki, performed by The National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw, conducted by Witod Rowicki, courtesy of Poskie Nagrania.
SONGS
"Do The Right Thing," written by David "Redhead" Guppy & Markell Riley, performed by Readhead [sic] Kingpin & The F.B.I., courtesy of Virgin Records Ltd.
DETAILS
Release Date:
1 November 1991
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 1 November 1991
Production Date:
18 March--late May or early June 1991
Copyright Claimant:
Universal City Studios, Inc.
Copyright Date:
3 February 1992
Copyright Number:
PA560625
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Duration(in mins):
102
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
31396
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

On his thirteenth birthday, an African American boy named Poindexter allows his sister, Ruby, to read his future using Tarot cards. She predicts that difficult adventures lie ahead for “Fool.” He expresses annoyance at her nickname for him. Later, Ruby’s boyfriend, Leroy, informs Fool that the family is being evicted from their run-down apartment because they failed to pay rent. Fool argues that his mother is too sick to hold a job, but Leroy speculates that the ruthless landlords do not care. They want to tear down the building and build condominiums. Leroy suggests that the landlords, rumored to own a gold coin collection, deserve to be robbed. Ruby disapproves, but Fool agrees to the scheme. The next day, he scouts the landlords’ decaying mansion, noting the screens and locks on the windows. A woman comes to the back door, but refuses to let him inside to use the bathroom. Fool returns to a van parked across the street and reports his findings. Leroy’s friend, Spenser, insists there must be a way to deceive the woman. Wearing a gas company uniform, Spenser convinces her to let him check a gas meter in the basement. Leroy and Fool watch from the van, surprised to see the woman drive away a short while later. Convinced that Spenser has stolen the gold for himself, Leroy and Fool break into the house, narrowly making their way past a vicious dog. In the kitchen, they hear strange sounds in the walls, but dismiss the scuttling as rats. Leroy goes upstairs, leaving Fool to investigate the basement. There, he finds Spenser, dead. Suddenly, Fool is attacked from behind. He tries to flee, but finds the ... +


On his thirteenth birthday, an African American boy named Poindexter allows his sister, Ruby, to read his future using Tarot cards. She predicts that difficult adventures lie ahead for “Fool.” He expresses annoyance at her nickname for him. Later, Ruby’s boyfriend, Leroy, informs Fool that the family is being evicted from their run-down apartment because they failed to pay rent. Fool argues that his mother is too sick to hold a job, but Leroy speculates that the ruthless landlords do not care. They want to tear down the building and build condominiums. Leroy suggests that the landlords, rumored to own a gold coin collection, deserve to be robbed. Ruby disapproves, but Fool agrees to the scheme. The next day, he scouts the landlords’ decaying mansion, noting the screens and locks on the windows. A woman comes to the back door, but refuses to let him inside to use the bathroom. Fool returns to a van parked across the street and reports his findings. Leroy’s friend, Spenser, insists there must be a way to deceive the woman. Wearing a gas company uniform, Spenser convinces her to let him check a gas meter in the basement. Leroy and Fool watch from the van, surprised to see the woman drive away a short while later. Convinced that Spenser has stolen the gold for himself, Leroy and Fool break into the house, narrowly making their way past a vicious dog. In the kitchen, they hear strange sounds in the walls, but dismiss the scuttling as rats. Leroy goes upstairs, leaving Fool to investigate the basement. There, he finds Spenser, dead. Suddenly, Fool is attacked from behind. He tries to flee, but finds the door to the basement locked. He screams for help, and a pretty young girl opens the door, allowing him to escape. Just then, the woman returns, accompanied by a man. Fool runs upstairs to alert Leroy. They attempt to leave, but the man and woman unleash their dog, Prince, and Leroy and Fool are forced to hide. When a ghastly boy-creature startles them, Leroy reveals himself, and is shot by the man. Fool crawls through a vent into the space behind the wall, astonished to see the young girl at the end of the shaft. He follows her and extends a hand in friendship. She introduces herself as Alice, and admits that she has never been outside the house. When Fool asks about the “people” in the basement, she explains that the man and woman spent years searching for “the perfect boy child,” but each boy they kidnapped disappointed them in some way, so they locked them in the cellar. A boy named “Roach” escaped, and roams through the walls of the house, infuriating his “parents” with his wailing. Just then, Roach howls, directing the landlord toward Alice and Fool’s location. At the same time, police arrive, and the woman calls the man downstairs. The officers alert the couple to Spenser’s van, indicating that it was used in a robbery the previous evening. When the man and woman point out that their home is equipped with numerous security devices, the officers leave. Prince barks, revealing Fool’s presence upstairs. The man corners the boy, wildly firing his shotgun, but Roach pulls Fool through a cupboard and into the walls, rescuing him. Fool, Roach, and Alice convene in Alice’s bedroom, but their respite is short-lived. The man and woman storm in, capturing Fool and Alice. They lock Fool in the basement with the adolescent ghouls, who eagerly descend on him. However, Roach uses Leroy’s dismembered corpse to scare them away. Fool thanks his new friend, but notices that Roach is bleeding from a gunshot wound. Before dying, Roach presses several gold coins into Fool’s hand. Fool collects Alice, and together they navigate the maze of crawl spaces to the attic. En route, Prince dies when the man mistakes the dog for Fool. Recalling a pond in the backyard, Fool urges Alice to jump from the roof, but she is too scared. Fool leaps, landing safely in the water. He runs home and shows Ruby and Grandpa Booker the gold coins. Grandpa Booker declares that the coins will cover their rent for a decade, as well as pay for Fool’s mother’s surgery. He warns Fool to stay away from the landlords, revealing that they are brother and sister, descendants of a deranged family who once ran a funeral home. Fool insists he must rescue Alice. He calls police and reports a case of child abuse at the landlords’ property. Police investigate, but the man and woman claim they are childless. After the officers leave, the man and woman secure the house, unaware that Fool has snuck in. However, as the boy searches the corridors for Alice, they discover him. Fool evades them and escapes to the attic, where Alice reveals that the man has booby-trapped the house. They shimmy down the chimney to the first floor, and Fool instructs Alice to run out the back door. She begs him not to leave her, but he indicates he has business in the basement. They part ways, but are soon cornered by the maniacal adults. Just then, someone knocks on the front door. The woman answers, stunned to see Ruby and Grandpa Booker on the porch. Ruby gestures to an assembly of irate people on the lawn, explaining that they are tenants who have had enough of the landlords’ greedy behavior. The woman draws a gun, but Alice appears and knocks her unconscious. Meanwhile, in the basement, Fool enlists the aid of the adolescent ghouls. In gratitude, they show him a treasure trove of cash and gold coins. Upstairs, the woman regains consciousness and chases Alice through the house with a kitchen knife. However, the freed adolescent ghouls burst through the floors, cupboards, and walls, intent on killing their captor. The man continues to stalk Fool in the basement, where he provokes the boy into triggering one of the booby-traps. Explosions tear through the house. Fool and Alice take comfort in knowing that the man is dead. As cash and coins rain down on the formerly disgruntled tenants, the adolescent ghouls slip away into the neighborhood. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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