Way back in October of last year, my so-called best friend managed to talk me into watching the first few episodes of American Horror Story — the bafflingly awful FX horror “anthology” series created by the dude from Glee who hates your band for not wanting your songs on Glee. In case you're not catching my intonation, I totally hated this show. American Horror Story is an absurd patchwork of horror tropes piled together in the middle of a room and set on fire. It's dumb as hell and proud of it. My friend's response? I'm just not familiar enough with dumb horror movies to appreciate it.
Which is true. And I know this is true because I saw The People Under the Stairs this weekend at The Belcourt and everything about that terrible show is suddenly clear. Or at least the spandex demon sex scene with Mrs. Coach is. I guess.
The People Under the Stairs is Wes Craven's first real attempt at making a broad Sam Raimi horror film with comedic elements. You could probably argue the case for A Nightmare on Elm Street (the first one, not the lulzworthy sequel that he had nothing to do with), but I don't think Freddy Krueger's one-liners are even nearly comparable to the madcap shenanigans that Ed and Nadine from Twin Peaks get up to in this flick. Everett McGill literally spends the better part of the second act wildly firing a shotgun into the walls of his own home while dressed in an S&M outfit. Why? Good question!
So this isn't exactly Craven's finest work. It's ridiculous and borderline nonsensical. The house owned by “Man” and “Woman” (McGill and Robie are never given names, not even in the credits) dwells in a ridiculous dimension where the spaces inside walls are big enough to be walk-in closets and an elaborate Die Hard-style duct system twists through the whole place. Shit just happens, out of nowhere, all the damn time. It kinda comes off like Craven was writing it on the fly, like he came onto set one day and said to everyone, “Whelp, I guess we're ritualistically disemboweling Ving Rhames today!”
But that's not to say The People Under the Stairs isn't at least interesting. For what it is, it's actually kinda subversive. If you ignore the titular “people” and the S&M suits, The People Under the Stairs is actually a movie about class struggle, the problematic nature of ghettos, racism, slumlords and the cost of healthcare. It's not quite as poignant as They Live (which is directly responsible for the People screening), but it does bring some interesting stuff to the table. Sure, Man and Woman are cartoonishly evil and I'm not convinced that Craven is really in a position to cover issues on race and class like he's Spike Lee, but People Under the Stairs at least tries. And I'm sure Rush Limbaugh hated it. But that's a given.
I'd never seen People Under the Stairs before (and neither had the vast majority of people in the theater), but I kinda dug it. And I thought it worked pretty well as a midnight movie. The greatest strength People Under the Stairs has is that it's unpredictable. It doesn't feel like a typical horror movie (mainly because it's completely nuts in its execution). It's not exactly a terrifying movie — which helps if you're a horror movie wuss like I am — but it's totally engaging. Plus, there's a scene where Ving Rhames uses the phrase “Secretary of Pussy.” Good job, Ving!
On a minor film-studies side-note, it's interesting to see horror movies defy and adapt some of the tropes that were laid out in film/gender studies books like Men, Women and Chainsaws. There is no “final girl” in People Under the Stairs, but there is a “final boy.” And you absolutely identify with him — after all, there are no other really defined characters in the movie, so you don't really have a choice. I'd do more armchair film studies criticizing, but I haven't read Clover's book since college and, like most of college, I don't really remember much of it.
Odds and Ends
* The drink special was “The House Cherry,” after Ving Rhames' line, “we done popped this house's cherry.” Grody. I spaced on a few of the ingredients but it involved gin, tart cherry juice and orange bitters.
* I raced over to Belcourt after Diarrhea Planet's show at Mercy Lounge, so I may have missed some of the preroll, but it included some of the following: a music video for “Do the Right Thing”; the claymation short “Bedtime for Timmy”; an ad for the Knoxville Horror Film Fest; a trailer for Parents; a trailer for Craven's awesome meta-movie New Nightmare; a totally racist video about a little girl with a perm from Everything is Terrible; a Got Milk? ad starring Sean Whalen (Roach); a trailer for Vampire in Brooklyn; a Twin Peaks clip; and a Fight Club bumper.
* Speaking of Fight Club, Fight Club will screen as a midnight movie in October! Don't talk about it!
Coming Up: I guess I'll be watching Xanadu, the Olivia Newton-John/Gene Kelly musical about rollerskating and dreamz. Well, OK then.