I love to be scared at the movies, so I couldn’t wait to see US, writer/director Jordan Peele’s follow up to his 2017 satirical horror hit GET OUT, which earned him an Oscar for Best Original screenplay. US is a different creature; with an evocative premise, and a cast to take it and run with it, US is less social commentary, and more sustained suspense; its final twist burrows under your skin and keeps on churning; destined to be a hit– and hit a nerve.
According to Peele, US was inspired by an episode called “Mirror Image” from the first season of the classic TV series hosted by Rod Serling, “The Twilight Zone.” (Peele is rebooting the series for CBS All Access.) US begins with a sequence at a beachside amusement park where a little girl wanders away from her family and has a terrifying experience in a funhouse of mirrors. Who wouldn’t?
Flash forward; the little girl Adelaide, now all grown up in the form of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, heads back to that seaside resort with her own family, on their annual trip to the Wilson’s beach house. Winston Duke (Black Panther) plays Wade, Adelaide’s big bear of a husband and father of their two children, a young teenage girl Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who barely tolerates her little brother Jason (Evan Alex), a quirky kid who likes to wear a mask.
As they tootle along in the car, Adelaide grows increasingly tense about something she can’t name, and so do we. Typical middle class black family dynamics ensue, though Peele points out in an interview with BET that a black family as the subject of a mainstream horror film is hardly typical. “Very important for me was to have a black family at the center of a horror film…It’s also important to note that this movie, unlike Get Out, is not about race.” As the kids argue, and little brother lets it be known he can swear and the daughter knows that the hip hop track on the radio “I Got 5 On It” is about drugs, her determinedly cheerful, upstanding dad tries to put a lid on it. (That tune remixed as a sinister echo of itself for the trailer appears on the soundtrack and underlines the horrifying distortion to come.)
By the time the Wilsons arrive at their destination, we are primed. When the lights suddenly go out, and one of the kids sees a group of people, indeed, a family that looks like them only creepier, standing in the dark at the end of their driveway, I grabbed my seat. Dad, however, after one modest attempt at diplomacy, eschews law and order, dips into his macho bag of tricks, picks up a bat, and heads out to confront them. And that is the turning point in the film, the trigger for the violence that ensues and the key which unlocks the horror to come.
The boy, wide eyed, is the first to say it: “It’s us.” The pronouncement recalls the terror of the word “Them!” in the eponymously titled 1954 sci-fi monster classic. Now, in 2019, our paranoid meta selves are the monsters, our hidden impulses and lost shadows come home to roost. The actors all play dual roles, and Nyong’o in particular runs the emotional and psychological gamut from a nervous mother and former dancer, to her loose-limbed, raspy-voiced doppelganger with whom she wrangles; later, in a brilliantly edited sequence, the black swan/white swan dichotomy is echoed onscreen in a revelatory pas de deux that is as poignant as it is terrifying.
From “Black Swan” and “Jaws,” which drove home the horror of a beach vacation (it also appears on a T-shirt) to the poisonous-looking, inordinately large, shiny red candied apple we first see little Adelaide carrying as she heads off alone into the dark night, the film is a Pandora’s box of references. US is certainly beholden to the skin crawling spookiness of 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and the eye-opening malignancy of “The Matrix,” not to mention the twins in “The Shining,” along with the terror that film taps when the familiar becomes strange. And in a subtly humorous nod to the ritual of watching horror movies, Peele even provides us opportunities to scream at the stupid things characters in such films do, and we find ourselves yelling at the screen: Don’t go out there! Keep running! Don’t let that kid out of your sight! We know it’s futile.
I wish I knew less going in; the trailers almost always tell more than they should. In the horror genre, this is deadly. Even so, US had more slack in it than “GET OUT,” and lacked its satirical bite. Instead, it held me suspended in a subtler tension, looking inward rather than out at what troubles us. I kept thinking about what we repress, individually and as a society. There’s enough escalating shared violence among this family and their off putting neighbors (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) for us to ask who we really are, what are we really capable of, and what do we do with that? It will GET OUT; then it’s up to US.