Jordan Peele set his own bar incredibly high with his directorial debut, Get Out. Though thematically a big departure, Us shows that Peele’s strong voice as a terror craftsman is not just limited to one category of horror film.
Us begins with the past. In 1986 Santa Cruz, just before Hands Across America, a family visits the boardwalk. The mother and father don’t seem like they’re on the same page about much, but their young daughter, Adelaide, doesn’t seem to notice. The quiet, observant girl soaks in all the sights while her parents bicker about what attraction to visit next. When mom excuses herself so that she can visit the bathroom and dad is left in charge, the girl lets her curiosity get the better of her and wanders down to the beach.
The funhouse on the beach seems to be calling to her, and she’s compelled to explore it. While in the classical cinematic hall of mirrors, she panics and looks for a way to get out. There, she finds what looks to be her doppelgänger.
Just as soon as we glimpse the uncanny interaction Adelaide had as a child, we’re brought into her life in the present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is a mother oif two kids and heading back to Santa Cruz for an annual family vacation. Her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), has fully embraced the role of the corny father. Daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) complete the quartet as an exacerbated ‘tween and a playful kiddo. This group is ready to relax and get in some family time as best they can.
Peele doesn’t hold back on the atmosphere or tension, even before we settle into the real horror within Us. Even when it’s just a family beach vacation, the score and framing build on Adelaide’s unease with her return to Santa Cruz. The camera often floats along at the eye level of children, and doesn’t allow us to see things through adult or authoritarian eyes.
When the horror does start going, it goes hard. One night, after dark and just around bedtime, four people appear in the driveway. Gabe does his best silverback impression to scare away the strangers, but things go terribly wrong and continue to get worse for the loving, normal family.
To call Us a home invasion horror film is not inaccurate, but it’s incomplete. Doing so would ignore all the other psychological elements and extensive world creation within the film. The home invasion is a catalyst for greater discovery of just how deep the terror runs beneath the surface, but it’s not the crux of the larger and longer lasting fear that Us creates.
While all the actors are perfectly cast, given the nature of the film, each is also called upon to do so much more than a mere vanilla role. Even the smaller roles of the neighbors (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) are anything but window dressing to a larger story; they’re instrumental in carrying the weight of this grand world. Nyong’o defies comparison to other horror heroines since she pulls double duty as both victim and monster. I cannot recall the last time an actor made my skin crawl for the entire length of her introduction, and every single moment on screen thereafter. This is what nightmares are made of.
Us is a formidable horror giant in an already crowded pantheon of modern horror. The genre has always been political, grand, and aggressively honest, and it’s a boon to see that new directors like Peele are ready to carve out their own place in that world.