Jun 052019

The People Under The Stairs (1991) is a horror film written and directed by Wes Craven

Though categorized as horror, People is better understood as a contemporary Gothic fable. A young African-American man, known by his nickname “Fool”, is desperate to help his poor family in the ghetto. He breaks into the sprawling home of a wealthy couple who are the neighborhood landlords. The couple, who call each other “Daddy” and “Mama”, look and act like they stepped out of the 1950s, but they and their house is not what they seem. (They’re a bit like Paul and Mary from Eating Raoul, just taken a few steps further.)

“Fool” (Brandon Quinton Adams) confronts “Daddy” (Everett McGill)

What Fool discovers is a house of decadence and perversion. It’s riddled with deathtraps and hidden passages. The basement of the old funeral home is packed with the beaten down remnants of the couple’s adopted children and other people who went missing. Their guard dog eats human flesh. A mute kid named Roach lives in the crawl space. A kidnapped girl thinks she’s the couple’s daughter.

Growling and bellowing like an enraged animal, Daddy runs around the house, blasting holes in the walls with a shotgun while wearing a full body leather bondage suit. According to the credits, “Man’s leather outfit by Peter Camonier of Wayne’s Leatherack”. Later on, Fool spots a bit of bondage gear in the master bedroom. When police drop by to investigate, the couple quickly hide all the evidence of deviance, including their guns and their bondage gear.

“Mama” (Wendy Robie) and “Daddy” (Everett McGill)

The whys and hows of the suit are a mystery. We first see Daddy in the suit when he’s hunting for Roach, which might suggest that it has a practical purpose as a form of armor. Mama also orders Daddy, “Go straight into your room and get into your suit,” but it isn’t clear if that is a reward or a punishment. We never see Daddy and Mama use the gear on each other. (I suspect there was a scene cut or never shot.) Daddy wears the suit at his climactic confrontation with Fool.

As we’ve seen before, people tend to link deviant politics with deviant sexuality. We’re told that Daddy and Mama are actually  brother and sister, which would be perverse enough. There are hints of Daddy being on the brink of molesting their adopted daughter Alice, but what stands out is the bondage suit. So, what does it mean? Does he just like wearing it?

Whatever “Daddy” (Evertt McGill) is about to do to Alice (A.J. Langer) is interrupted by “Mama” (Wendy Robie), thankfully.

The politics of The People Under The Stairs are pretty clear. What Fool sees is not just whiteness, but whiteness at toxic levels of concentration, engendering sadism, perversion, and decadence. Though there have been plenty of people of colour involved in BDSM over the years, there is still the perception that BDSM is a white-people thing. Thus, to indicate that Fool is in “the heart of whiteness”, the film shows the signifier of this most deviant, most white form of sexuality.
It doesn’t necessarily make sense in terms of the character. Much like how in Silence of the Lambs, the killer’s house has Nazi/swastika items scattered throughout, which seem to function more as a shorthand for evil than a sign of a coherent character.

  2 Responses to “The People Under The Stairs (1991): The Celluloid Dungeon”

  1. […] Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991), the character of “Father” or “Daddy” wears a full body leather suit and mask, to […]

  2. […] I wonder if Paul and Mary will turn into “Mother” and “Father” from The People Under The Stairs. […]

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