It’s been over 25 years since Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs came out in 1991. Despite grossing nearly 4x its budget, the film is rarely mentioned among Craven’s best work. The film is marketed as a pure horror film, the poster featuring an ominous skull over a creepy house, and even the title triggers visions of monsters in the basement. What the film is though, is way ahead of its time. The film is brimming with social commentary that fits much better in 2017’s America than it did perhaps in the early ’90s. This weekend at the New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival in Iselin, NJ, stars of the film reunited to meet fans, sign autographs, and take pictures. On Saturday morning, Sean Whalen (Roach), Yan Birch (Stairmaster), Brandon Adams (Fool) and Kelly Jo Minter (Ruby) took the stage for a Q&A discussion with fans.
Moderated by Chris Stiles, the four stars traded stories about getting cast, their audition process, and memories of the dear departed Wes Craven. You can tell these guys get along as they told jokes and riffed on each other’s answers in other panels they’d done. Birch discussed auditioning as Roach knowing he was getting a different part, and Whalen was self-deprecating in mentioning how a fan asked about the prosthetics for his face… there weren’t any. Stiles asked them to discuss the house itself, which served as almost like a supporting character. Whalen relayed memories of him running through the walls with Adams and having so much fun. They later told a story of Wes Craven having 11-year Adams run around the block, then come back to set and have ACTION get called right away. They opened the floor to questions and I was quick to jump in.
Geeks of Doom: The movie is marketed as pure horror, but were you aware at the time of the social commentary Wes was making in this film, and has that changed over time?
Yan Birch: I didn’t at all then, but as I watched it more and more I began to notice the social message. But what I got the most out of it was the comedy. When I watched it for the first time I remember thinking, “This is a funny movie!” That’s what was great about it – you got horror, you got comedy, it had everything.
Kelly Jo Minter: I thought it was groundbreaking that it had a lead young black kid driving a major motion picture. Family, urban, hood, nobody was doing that. Wes definitely took some risks doing that. But it paid off. I think it’s relevant today thinking about now in 2017, but that was groundbreaking at the time.
Sean Whalen: You guys know the film Get Out. Well Jordan Peele said in interviews that two of the movies he watched for inspiration were Rosemary’s Baby and The People Under the Stairs.
Brandon Adams: At the time, I didn’t realize it at all, but as I got older I started to notice. It had a real strong social economic undertone to it, with the slumlords, to the healthcare with my mother. You know I was doing it for a reason.
Kelly added to the discussion of how progressive Wes Craven was by noting the film had a female cinematographer, Sandi Sissel. The actors all showered praise on their writer/director, and it really made me miss one of my favorite filmmakers. Whalen joked about one particular scene where Roach; whose tongue was cut off, reacts to a shotgun blast and Wes cut the scene that showed a young Whalen yell “oh shit” at the blast… with NO tongue.
They made fun of Brandon for being shy early on during panels and always using the excuse, “I was only 11” to get out of answering questions. That became a running gag throughout, that Brandon threw back on them to laughter from the audience. Brandon finally did answer the question about what he loved about the movie; and his response was, “A young black kid saved the day.”
The concepts of race and socioeconomic status were not lost on the fans. Many African-American and multi-ethnic fans sat in for the Q&A.
I got in one more question before panel’s end:
Geeks of Doom: What was it like for you guys, the heroes, to work with Everett (McGill) and Wendy (Robie) who are such psychotic villains in the movie?
Yan Birch: Well, I never shot any scenes with Everett, but Wendy was great, she was so sweet. She was always in character, but then she’d snap out and ask if we were okay. Wes keeps such a happy set, it’s so positive, which you wouldn’t get from the movies he made.
They ended by telling fans about their projects, and Yan is a busy man, plugging several upcoming movies including one called Sky Sharks, which he described as “nazi zombies riding flying sharks.” I don’t know about you, but I’m in! Him and Whalen are teaming up in the “Horror Expendables” Death House in January. Sean also has a horror comedy about a sock monster called Crust. Kelly Jo Minter described an upcoming project, a proof of concept with her A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 co-star Lisa Wilcox. When Stiles asked Brandon Adams, he responded, “I was only 11,” and the crowd went wild.
It was so cool seeing the stars of my favorite Wes Craven movie reunite on stage. I met them the day before, and they are some of the coolest people. If you’re at a convention and The People Under the Stairs cast are there, take the time to meet them.
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