One of the problems with the horror film scene today is the distinct lack of auteurs. Frankly, it’s starving for modern-day answers to Cronenberg, Romero, Craven, etc. Thankfully, this state of affairs seems to be changing with the advent of Jordan Peele. He’s only two films into his career as a director of horror fare (or “social thrillers,” as he calls them) but his most recent film Us gives us reason to believe he is a contender: this film shows attention to craft, an awareness of how to layer elements for repeat viewing and, best of all, the ability to build his material around themes that are as relevant as they are disturbing.
The premise is nightmarish yet built in a straightforward manner. An eerie prologue is built around a young girl having a nightmarish experience in a hall of mirrors at a beachside carnival in 1986. Years later, that girl has grown into wife and mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o). She reluctantly accompanies hubby Gabe (Winston Duke) and kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) on a trip to the beach house. Things seem okay until a mysterious, silent quartet of people show up to their house in the middle of the night… and are revealed to be nightmarish duplicates of the family. Adelaide and her family must fight to survive as they discover they aren’t the only ones with evil doppelgangers.
It’s best to cease discussion of the plot there because part of the fun with Us lies in watching how Peele builds out his premise. This much can be said: the resulting film is a lot more immediate in its depiction of horror elements than Get Out, combining the paranoid psychological thriller, home invasion suspense, some intense zombie movie-style action and more than a little Twilight Zone-inspired social commentary.
That’s a lot of ground to cover but Peele pulls it off at both script and direction levels. What’s truly impressive here is how controlled his style is. He bypasses the cliches that dominate modern horror – too-fast cutting, shaky-cam, heavy-handed sound effects/scoring – and goes for a more classical style that concentrates on visual design. He pays great attention to where the place the camera and understand the value of allowing things to happen in a still frame. Obsessives will love how he carefully layers in references and specific visual motifs (keep a look out for the use of the number 11 and a particular bible verse). He approaches themes in a similarly subtle fashion: you can take as a modern version of “we’re the real monsters” if you want but there are also deeper levels that comment on the American psyche or current political trends if you look deeper.
Peele also wisely invests in a strong cast. Nyong’o is revelatory here in her dual role, playing both a classical “strong mom” character and a terrifying double with an effectively unnerving vocal affectation and a sinister, cool sense of logic to her madness. Duke of Black Panther fame has fun playing against type as a likeably nerdy dad and Joseph and Alex do nice, naturalistic work as the kids. A nice surprise comes in the form of Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss as a kind of “frenemy” family that has a house nearby. Both give witty, subtly bitter performances that offer wry commentary on a certain hipster type of family unit.
Simply put, there’s a lot to admire in Us and it offers multiple levels for the adventurous viewer. It seems some of the mainstream press critics and even a few genre types are shrugging this one off, trying to manufacture a “sophomore slump” story out of this by quibbling over the (deliberately) enigmatic finale or suggesting Peele made a mistake by not working race relations into the plot (???). Schlockmania begs to differ. This is the work of someone developing his aesthetic, exploring different corners of his interests as he solidifies his blend of genre and social commentary. Peele is our best hope for an old-fashioned genre auteur today and he deserves our support.