By Jordan O’Brien
This review avoids spoilers, but contains descriptions of two scenes.
With “Us,” Jordan Peele cements his legacy as the greatest horror auteur working today.
In what appears to be a milestone for an original horror concept, the film will rake in $70 million this weekend, doubling the opening profits of Peele’s wildly successful predecessor, “Get Out.” Produced with a modest $20 million budget, the film is a triumph for Universal Pictures and Monkey Paw Productions.
But it’s also a victory for horror movie fans. Buttressed by visionaries like Peele, the genre has experienced a reimagining in recent years. Indie arthouse directors like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers have challenged mainstream conventions by creating a new, allegorical horror film. Directed with technical precision and authorial panache, these films infuse surrealist and expressionistic elements into narratives that center on the destruction of the family.
These themes resonate in Peele’s work, which explores the boundaries of psychological space and the real world through characters that experience trauma. Told through a sociopolitical framework, his narratives touch on issues of race and class—but they do so from the perspectives of communities that are historically underrepresented in American media.
“Us” is no different. But its success elucidates the critical distinction that separates Peele from other horror auteurs. Like “Get Out” did in 2017, “Us” illustrates Peele’s unique ability to market New Horror to mainstream audiences. It’s gross at the box office will likely compel studios to invest in this niche genre, similar to how “The Blair Witch Project” spurned several found-footage horror films.
Considering its distribution by a major studio and relatively large budget, “Us” seems to elude the definition of an independent film. But it exemplifies New Horror, and will undoubtedly serve as a touchstone for the genre.
Like “Under the Skin” and “The Babadook,” “Us” follows an unconventional narrative.
Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) wants to protect her family, but she harbors a dark secret: She believes something nightmarish from her childhood is looking for her. After walking into a hall of mirrors along the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, she sees something unnatural that traumatizes her for decades. When her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) organizes a trip to Santa Cruz with her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide returns to the source of her PTSD, triggering a series of strange events. For one, a family has arrived at their doorstep—and they look exactly like them.
Although the concept is strange, part of the magic of Peele’s films is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. He tenderizes an otherwise impenetrable idea for mainstream audiences, lest they begin to feel condescended to by directors who use phrases like “ethereal esoteric existentialism” to describe their films.
Like in “Get Out,” the most absurd elements of his films are deliberated through comedy. A home invasion by a series of doppelgangers may be horrifying, but the scene’s outlandishness approaches farce. If it tonally maintained a veneer of solemnity, it would be mocked by audiences, deflating their trust in the film to scare them later on.
Peele carefully orchestrates moments of levity to offset these concerns.
Comedic relief largely stems from Duke’s character, who comments on the insanity of the circumstances with amusing frankness. His reaction to the doppelgangers who invade his home, for example, could have been played like Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the original “Halloween”: All seriousness, pure terror. But the effect wouldn’t work for a film like “Us.” The absurdity of the doppelgangers invites mockery, but falls short of self-derision given the sheer entertainment the film offers.
Peele encourages his audiences to laugh, but only when he wants them to. As evinced through the film’s opening scene, he masterfully channels atmosphere and performance to build to decisive moments of terror. A balance between the two genres allows the horror in the film to shine.
New Horror films regularly blend several genres together: Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” and Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” are amalgams of horror and science fiction; Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” doubles as a thriller.
These auteurs are masters of their craft, but their films didn’t fare nearly as well at the box office. Indeed, “Annihilation,” the highest grossing of the three, only garnered $11 million on its opening weekend.
While the profitability of Peele’s films certainly benefits from his idiosyncratic vision and Comedy Central profile, there’s an allure to comedy that makes his work palatable to larger audiences. Assuming the quality of his films doesn’t falter, his follow-up to “Us” should perform just as well if he continues to enhance this formula.
Beyond his command of genre, Peele, as with all New Horror auteurs, dips into bizarre, uncharted territory. He and his contemporaries effortlessly engage their characters’ subconscious fears, posing ambiguous riddles that deprive audiences of easy answers.
The effect recalls the technique of free indirect discourse in literature, wherein the author will present the text as if it were being written from the flow of a character’s thoughts.
While auteurs like Robert Eggers and Jonathan Glazer have illustrated this idea, Peele mastered it in “Get Out” through “the sunken place”—which has now been incorporated into mainstream parlance.
Peele creates a similar sacred nowhere in “Us.” The setting that engendered Adelaide’s PTSD, the hall of mirrors, is filmed as if it were untethered from reality. Dark pockets of the room seem to vanish into space, suggesting that the hall is merely a subconscious projection of Adelaide’s mind. When she explores this environment further, it seems to expand unrealistically. Although attached to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, the building encompasses a series of long, industrial corridors and an elaborate elevator that leads to underground tunnels.
The setting recalls the ornate, fantastical room at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Both appear to be impossibly constructed.
Beneath the elevator, Adelaide discovers the source of her woes. But what she finds in that basement straddles the line between reality and fantasy. As with the sunken place, Peele explores the psychological caverns of the mind.
While the resulting ambiguity may distance audiences, Adelaide’s adventure is an entertaining one. Buttressed by comedy, the film feels free to leave audiences with open questions.
While this approach differs from “Get Out,” Peele mirrors how other auteurs have concluded their films. Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother” offers an example. So does Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s “Goodnight Mommy.”
With his version of “The Twilight Zone” set to debut on CBS next Monday, Peele’s clout will expand. While its unclear what he will do next, he’s likely to return to the director’s chair empowered by his latest accomplishment.
“Us” proves that Peele’s directorial virtuosity and commercial viability have grown since the release of “Get Out.” Given his unique ability to bridge arthouse and mainstream audiences, he has established himself as the voice of modern horror. His contributions to the genre will undoubtedly impact filmmakers in the coming years.