Double Feature Friday: The People Under The Stairs & They Live

An ongoing series of horror double feature recommendations, today's Double Feature Friday offers up twin social commentaries by two modern masters of horror
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An ongoing series of horror double feature recommendations, today's Double Feature Friday offers up twin social commentaries by two modern masters of horror

BY LIONEL FRANKENSTEIN

Horror nerds that we are, Fun Size Horror would love to share with you some of our favorite genre films, but with a twist: instead of just listing off some favorites, each week we'll offer up a pairing of two horror films that complement one another in unique or fascinating ways: Double Feature Friday.

Today's entry comes on the heels of something far more frightening than any horror movie—the final Republican Debate before the upcoming Super Tuesday primary elections. As such, today we’re viewing two oddball and furious responses to the ravages of Reaganomics, made by two modern masters: Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs and John Carpenter’s They Live, two films that view the post-Reagan American landscape through the prism of blackly-comic horror.

THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991 / 102 minutes/ dir. Wes Craven)

Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs compresses the post-Reagan/Bush America into the microcosm of a single house, one riddled with convoluted tunnels, secret passageways, and hidden rooms—with the majority of its inhabitants living deep in the dank basement and the tunnels behind the walls. This starved rabble has turned to cannibalism to survive, as they are no longer cared for by their “parents”: the abusive and comically unhinged Robesons (played with maniacal freedom and glee by Twin PeaksEverett McGill and Wendy Robbie). Together, the elder Robesons live in the upper floors of the house in wealth and comfort, working as duplicitous landlords of urban housing.

The lives of the Robesons come unraveled (and the movie kicks in), when a young boy, Fool, sneaks into the Robeson house after learning the couple has evicted his family from their run-down apartment. There, in a series of events by turns horrifying and hilarious, he discovers the secret of the people under the stairs—a metaphorical America in which power incestuously passes between the unhinged family members who live in opulence at the top, while the large remainder of the populace exists below, in the dark, and struggling for whatever crumbs they can find in the basement.

THEY LIVE (1988/ 94 minutes/ dir. John Carpenter)

If The People Under The Stairs is a crude and comic diagram of America’s recessed economy at the end of the 1980s, then They Live  is the wildly cynical answer to the question of how things became so bad.That answer, though, is a cultural one, not economic: complacency. They Live is a film that argues that we, the people under the stairs, allowed ourselves to be moved into the basement, distracting ourselves with TV and products while “They” shepherded us from the upper floors and into the dark.

They Live finds quiet drifter John Nada ambling into L.A. and, somewhat hilariously, uncovering a massive conspiracy: aliens have been living among us, brainwashing us via TV and advertising to desperately chase wealth and material goods while they slowly consolidate power and control the Earth. Soon, Nada (like Fool), works to undo conspiracy of power while also attempting to rouse others to his cause. 

Both films end with a riotous bang, and with the enslaved populace finally awake to what’s been going on. Interestingly, though, both films also end before showing us what the now-awakened people under the stairs will do with their newfound knowledge and freedom—will they move freely into the house above, or resign themselves to the world that “They” has created for them?