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The People Under the Stairs is a 1991 horror movie directed by Wes Craven. It's the story of a young boy, called Fool, whose family is about to be evicted from their apartment by the evil landlords, who want to develop their building once they're gone. Fool's mother is sick and needs an operation, but Fool's sister can't come up with enough money. Fool wants to be a doctor, but his family doesn't have enough money to ever send him to medical school. Fortunately, his sister's boyfriend, Leroy, has a plan to rob the landlord's house; and they need Fool's help to do it.

Breaking into the house proves to be the easy part; it's getting back out that's the problem. The house is built like a fortress, and designed to keep something in. Electrified doors, a vicious guard dog, strange creatures in the basement, and a bizarrely extensive security system prevent them from leaving before the owners return. "Mommy" and "Daddy" are back, and they're armed and crazy. They quickly dispatch Leroy and feed him to their "sons", a pack of mutilated boys that they keep captive in the basement, and set out to hunt Fool through the house. With the help of their daughter Alice and a boy called Roach, Fool attempts to escape the house and reveal the truth to the world.

A wonderfully bizarre horror movie, The People Under the Stairs has some of the structure of a fairy tale with Fool needing to save Alice from her insane captors. Throw in some surprisingly frightening villains and some social commentary and it's a memorable, if unusual, movie.

Tropes used in The People Under the Stairs include:

  • Abusive Parents: Played to ridiculous levels by the villains.
  • Actor Allusion: Mommy and Daddy are played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, who played married couple Ed and Nadine on Twin Peaks.
  • Alice Allusion: In this, the Alice is a little girl who has never seen the outside world. She acts as the movies Distressed Damsel, but gets some awesome moments later.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Prince. Played seriously and frighteningly.
  • Author Appeal: Wes Craven's continued love for booby traps and survivalist tactics.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Inverted. The main character is black and the first person to die is the white accomplice.
  • Broken Record: Mommy and Daddy both repeat "Burn in Hell" anytime they talk about someone they don't like.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Grampa Booker warns Fool not to get involved with "that brother-sister act" after his first escape.
  • The Cavalry: Grampa and Fool's sister repeatedly save Fool by getting the villains to put their normal charade back on to answer the doorbell. When Mommy decides to shoot the pests on her porch, the whole neighborhood shows up behind them.
  • Creepy Basement: Especially since it really is full of flesh eating monsters and has trap stairs.
    • Subverted in that the monsters actually help Fool. There's also a big treasure vault down there.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The titular people under the stairs. They're just victims of Mommy and Daddy.
  • The Fool: Fool's nicknamesake. Played fairly straight, Fool gets by because he's clever, but he's damn lucky every time it counts.
  • Good People Have Good Sex: Though we only see Daddy using the gimp suit as a sort of bizarre battle armor...
  • Hero-Tracking Failure: Daddy unloads a hell of a lot of lead into the walls without hitting Fool. Of course, Fool is in the walls and that limits the angles he can shoot at.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The people under the stairs aren't particularly interested in eating people, it's just that Daddy starves them.
    • There are hints that Daddy is this by choice. We only see that he's eating meat at the beginning of the movie, but he keeps spitting out buckshot. They never leave the house. He uses that gun on intruders. Do the math.
  • Karmic Death: Mommy being attacked by the boys after they escape the basement.
  • Kid Hero: Fool. This is taken to Home Alone levels at a few points.
  • Kill It with Fire: Fool blows up the house at the end. No one but the villains are hurt.
  • Knight Templar: The villains subscribe to some interpretation of religion that compels them to mutilate and imprison children that aren't pure, as well as trying to torture purity into their "daughter".
  • Large Ham: Every single line that Daddy utters. Mommy starts to get into the act towards the end too.
  • Made of Iron: Daddy takes more blunt trauma to the head in this movie, but he never seems to slow down.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: The titular people under the stairs. Though their deformities and mental problems are the result of abuse from the villains.
  • Malevolent Architecture: When the security system is active, the house has spike traps, trick stairs, and electrified doorknobs.
  • No Name Given: "Mommy" and "Daddy" are never given full names, even in the credits.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Fool seems reluctant to tell people that his real name is Poindexter.
  • Pet the Dog: Mommy only seems to be genuinely affectionate to her husband and the watchdog Prince. And even that is played extremely creepily.
  • Precision F-Strike: Right before blowing up the house at the end:

 Fool: I'm tired of fucking around! So either put the gun down now, or kiss your ass goodbye, boy!

  • Psychopathic Manchild: Daddy has shades of this, dancing around yelling "I got him!" when he thinks he's killed Fool.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The Police are fairly quick to respond to calls of trouble at the home of Mommy and Daddy, but the crimes of the two maniacs are so outrageous that it makes it almost impossible to believe that these two seemingly normal people could have done anything like imprisoning/mutilating children.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The boys trapped in the basement rip through the walls to attack Mommy once they're released.
  • Shout-Out: Mommy saying "Kill him, Daddy, kill him!" is reminiscent of Mrs. Voorhees chanting "Kill her mommy, kill her!" in Friday the 13 th.
  • Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: Mostly horror, but there is some tongue-in-cheek and borderline slapstick comedy as well.
  • The Speechless: Roach. Mommy cut his tongue out for talking back.
  • Stepford Smiler: Mommy, any time the police show up.
  • Tarot Motifs: Fool's sister gives him the nickname Fool because she says The Fool tarot card represents him.
  • Took a Level In Badass: Fool goes from a timid coward not wanting to enter the house, to a clever genius who kills their rabid dog by luring him to a wall to get stabbed by Dad. He goes back to the house without fear, sets the rest of the trapped boys free and blows the house up with dynamite, killing Daddy.
    • Not to mention that he actually punches said big dog right in the nose AND punches Daddy in the nuts. While the guy is carrying a GUN. Sure, panic attack, but that is still ridicilously awesome.
    • Alice begins as a shy innocent damsel afraid of Mommy and Daddy to an impressive hero in her own right, who quickly turns the tables on them and gets angry when they threaten to kill Fool, attacks Mom from above when she attempts to kill Fool's Sister, and then stabs and weakens her, ultimately making Mom afraid of her instead, and giving the rest of the boys a chance to maul her to death.
  • Zillion-Dollar Bill: The coins Fool gets at the end pay for everything his family needs.
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