Since we’re about to speak at length about a horror film, especially one directed by someone that every news source likes to tout as the next Hitchcock, it seems appropriate to use a quote from a Dario Argento film. After all, Argento was the true successor to Hitchcock, and even then, to call him just that would be an incredibly restrictive and unfair title that diminishes the singularities of both auteurs. In Argento’s self-reflexive giallo Tenebre, a film that explores, among many things, the responsibilities artists have for the impact of their art, a character tells another, “They love your books, but they hate your success.”
Jordan Peele has been very successful. His directorial debut, Get Out, was critically acclaimed and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. While I personally find the film to be a sterling example of modern horror that knows how to go back to the well and come up with something new and relatable for turbulent modern times, it also feels as though the genre film was put upon an unfair pedestal. In the wake of Get Out’s wild success, Peele has been elevated as an important authorial voice, and has signed onto a myriad of high-profile projects such as the reboot of The Twilight Zone and a remake of beloved 1990s horror film Candyman. But first on the docket was Us, Peele’s second feature-length film, coming quickly on the heels of Get Out and its success. While critics have been pretty unanimous in their praise of Peele’s sophomore effort, audiences have been much more divided. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: good horror is divisive precisely because horror is inherently about divisive subjects. But it’s probably not the reaction the audience nor Universal Pictures probably expected.
To claim Peele’s career is dependent upon his second feature film would be exaggeration at its worst. But, by that same token, to say Peele is a singular voice in horror and can even be compared to the likes of Hitchcock is just as unhelpfully hyperbolic. The same people who are uncomfortably raising him up will also be the same ones who are ready to tear him down when he possibly disappoints them in the future. And Us is a little bit disappointing, although I can’t tell if it’s because of inflated expectations or unfair comparisons to Get Out. It’s probably a combination of both. The bottom line is that Us is still a great film, uncommonly well-made for the genre, and it has a lot more on its mind than the average studio film. The trouble is that Us is never really sure just how to explore its own thematic aspirations.
The biggest thing, and perhaps an inevitability, is that Us is going to unfairly be judged against Get Out. That makes sense. People are curious how Peele’s follow up will stack against his debut. It’s trying to see if lightning can strike twice. But very few directors who come off incredibly hot debuts can conjure up a follow up that the mass audience finds to be just as satisfying, primarily because of their rose-tinted memories of the previous picture. The long-short of it is that Us is nothing like Get Out. The two are completely different branches of horror. Get Out is a slow burn with an explosive finale, a gothic enigma that slowly transforms into an ordeal narrative by its conclusion. Us, on the other hand, is a straight ordeal narrative the entire time, an absolute sear that’s akin to a bloody game of cat and mouse.
Even thematically, the two films are about completely different subjects and go about exploring them quite differently. Perhaps the only place where a comparison seems necessary is looking at the quality of those thematic explorations, and in that regard, Get Out is stronger, because Us is often frustratingly diffuse. There’s merit to a lot of what it wants to say, and it even goes about some of its exploration in a very engaging, almost satirical way. But it doesn’t have the strong, clear thesis Get Out presented and stuck to. In some ways, maybe that means Us will stand up better to repeat viewings – or its stock could lower in estimation with each successive rewatch. Only time will tell on that front.
The plot of Us is quite simple – at least until the ending, when the world opens itself up in a strangely, uniquely existential way. The Wilson family travels to their vacation home in Santa Cruz to enjoy time with friends. The place is a source of trauma for matriarch Adelaide (Nyong’o), who was separated from her family at the boardwalk and subsequently ran into what she thought was a doppelgänger of herself amongst the funhouse mirrors. That childhood nightmare becomes a reality when the family is attacked by a group of doppelgängers known as The Tethered that look just like them, led by Adelaide’s double Red (also Nyong’o). The Wilson family must kill or be killed, while simultaneously uncovering a thread involving the copies that extends beyond just their small family unit.
As a narrative, Us is a bit long-toothed in its beginning. Peele takes a fair amount of time to establish the characters and some plot devices that are all eventually paid off in either a logical or satisfying way by the end of the story. But the film lacks a sense of dread beyond its skillful opening at the boardwalk, and almost goes on too long before The Tethered finally arrive. Then, the plot more or less becomes a series of chases and near-deaths that categorize an ordeal narrative. Not a bad thing at all. In fact, very par the course. The tricky part is that Peele slowly opens his world up, turning what initially begins as a home invasion into something all-encompassing. There’s a sense of existential dread built from the simple idea of squaring off against your Dark Half, with a sense of a slowly crumbling world order, but to see it’s not just unique to you is somehow both chilly and a bit too baroque. The film is eventually encumbered by the apparent need to explain everything, and somehow manages to both over-explain and under-explain the mythology. Horror thrives from a sense of the unknown and to give full explanation to what is Abominable takes away the very essence of what makes it so aberrant in our world.
But the effort is noted, and Peele still shows that he’s incredibly intelligent and well-versed in his love for the genre. Here at FilmFisher, when it comes to defining horror, the rule is that it must feature monsters, which themselves are physical embodiments of a societal, cultural, or natural taboo. That meaning can be stretched as a result. For example, while Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a slasher, the backwoods family are cannibals, which is a clear taboo. Leatherface, the central villain, even wears the skin of his victims as a mask. The film is clearly horror, and its villains are monstrous. Both of Peele’s two efforts fall into horror in a very smooth way, aided by a sense of historicity within the genre. Get Out featured hypnotists and body snatchers, with the hypnotist being a reworking of the original cinematic horror villain: the mastermind. The first horror film is often considered to be The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German Expressionist film whose titular character worked through hypnosis. That was in line with the birth of cinema itself, as film had an almost hypnotic quality upon its audience, who were often baffled by the concept of captured, moving imagery that seemed to pull them into another world. Get Out became the first in a new wave of socially-conscious horror for the 2010s, and so Peele’s reliance on the hypnotist was very apropos.
Us meets Get Out‘s take on monsters in the middle, with the concept of the body snatcher, or to be more accurate, doubles. Body snatchers work as doppelgängers not only because they affect our form in a perfect way, but they also conspire to steal our lives wholesale. There is this idea of consumption, that the copy will overtake the original, who will then be rendered obsolete. Even more frightening, there’s this idea that your double is your perfect enemy because they know you in every knowable way. The most famous film about copies is The Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, which has been remade countless times, although the best iteration is Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland as the lead. Like the socially conscious aspects of the cinematic mastermind, pay attention to when those Body Snatcher films were released, the ’50s and late ’70s. Both are well-documented moments of internal strife and fear within America. In the 1950s, there was the Red Scare, so the concept of somebody being a hidden monster who affects the appearance of a loved one was tied to the rise of Communism. And then in the late 1970s, the Cold War was just about to begin, thus kicking off this almost intangible fear that the Other was waiting to strike at any moment – or that they already had. Us takes that concept and applies it to our times very well, given the state of politics and corruption.
Peele also knows that the true fear of doppelgängers comes from a sense of the Uncanny, horror’s greatest and most affecting tool. An Abomination is, in a sense, Uncanny too, because it’s about to mimic the form of something natural with a slight sense that something is off. Sigmund Freud wrote at length about the concept of the Uncanny, paying particular focus to the things people most find Uncanny – one of which was dolls, because they imitate human quality enough without being truly living. So to see yourself in the flesh, as a breathing, living oppositional force is incredibly Uncanny. And where there is Freud, Carl Jung is often close by. Much like in John Carpenter’s masterwork Halloween, the doubles here are Jungian Shadows in nature. The film depicts them as being almost the complete opposite of the others in terms of morality and ability. They are our Dark Half, a true mirror image, just as capable and perhaps even more willing than we are to do what’s necessary to survive.
The film uses a simple tool to explore the connectivity between the True Self and the Dark Half: the golden pairs of scissors The Tethered wield. Scissors are made up of two blades, bound together and characterized as something capable of causing harm or being able to excise. It also makes sense that it’s The Tethered’s tool of choice – what better way to unbind yourself from what you’re stuck to than a pair of scissors? Additionally, the film utilizes a funhouse mirror, where the attraction has the caption “Find Yourself.” It’s from here that The Tethered emerge, having waited underneath the Santa Cruz boardwalk, a dirty haven for cheap fun. They emerge as if they were mutations from the sewers, and the film makes that connection in a fun little easter egg from the beginning when a VHS copy of the film C.H.U.D. can be seen. That film was about mutations from under New York rising up against their unwilling creators, and Us (without giving too much away) feels similar in design.
Despite its diffuse thematic nature, symptomatic of a film with too many ideas and not enough cohesion, the biggest and most clear strand here is privilege. Whereas Get Out explored insidious, systemic racism that can come even from people who claim to be “woke,” Us pulls back from the racial discourse a bit and goes for something more wide-reaching. There is, of course, an element of race involved, but it’s hard to tell, at the moment at least, what Peele intended there. But everywhere else, the privilege angle checks out – the film is set around a vacation, the Tethered live underneath a carnival, the family friends are shown to flaunt their wealth… It’s a film about the privileges afforded to Americans and how it can embitter those who are disenfranchised and are able to see what they’re told they’ll never have. The Tethered live under the earth, away from the sun, copies of real people who enjoy warmth and genuine connections while the Tethered themselves are abandoned, cold, and forced to forego a sense of autonomy. The Tethered coming to the surface and attacking their other halves feels like Peele is discussing how the world has chosen to put value upon the wrong things. But even The Tethered have a skewed view of the world, inspired by the strangely chilling “Hands Across America” adverts from the 1980s.
As a horror film, Us has the thematic depth required, but because it’s diffuse, the film is never truly as scary as it could be. Peele’s directing remains as sharp and even more accomplished than it was during Get Out. He displays an uncommonly adroit knowledge of the genre, seen in the ways he stages his narratives and frames his compositions. But in this instance, it feels like his reach may have exceeded his grasp – Us just isn’t as viscerally thrilling as it could’ve been because Peele tries to do much and yet never enough with the simple concept at its core. Still, considering Peele kickstarted a more socially-conscious era of horror with his feature debut, it’s not surprising that he’s also been the only director to deliver another satisfying entry in that canon. Past horror films like The Quiet Place, Hereditary, and Halloween (2018) pale in comparison to Us, swinging for the fences but ultimately failing because of a conscious lack of what made their concepts horrific in the first place. Success is dangerous, because it creates unreal expectations, and hopefully this doesn’t affect Peele’s career. Even if Us isn’t the total sum of its parts, it’s still an indication that this filmmaker not only has a pulse on what makes good horror, but also on what makes America tick. Here’s to hoping his next few efforts improve upon what Us stumbled with and also continue to sharpen the things that worked here.