It all started with a trailer on Christmas Day 2018. A two-and-a-half-minute marriage of deranged sound and imagery from Get Out’s Jordan Peele.
He’d already conquered psychological race horror to Oscar-winning effect, but now Hollywood’s hottest kid on the block had a genre film up his sleeve: Us.
Not usually one to seek out jump scares or blood-puddled slasher films, I was immediately taken aback by Peele’s originality and cinematic swagger, in just those two-and-a-half minutes alone.
This was love at first fright, you might say.
In an interview with The Guardian prior to its release, Peele reflected on the anticipation surrounding his follow-up to Get Out, noting how fans expecting a similar experience would instead be greeted by a ‘very, very different movie’, and he wasn’t wrong.
The most impressive thing about Us is that the film actually improves on Peele’s phenomenal debut, and unlike most of Hollywood’s scare machines, Us keeps its cards close to the chest.
By using the home invasion sub-genre to mask over a mythology involving government experiments and disregarded subterranean communities, it becomes utterly nightmarish and devastating. Scenes regularly inspire a sharp intake of breath, but you daren’t look away, the intensity is too electric.
Here, Peele interrogates the fears of a nation once again, only this time through the prism of scissor-wielding doppelgängers as they confront a young black family on holiday.
This is undeniably refreshing for the horror genre; too long have viewers had to contend with possessed dolls, demonic children and grotesque death traps.
Black Panther duo Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke relish their dual roles throughout the film, and it’s thrilling to see two popular actors take a seat in such uncanny territory.
The former is scintillating as Adelaide Wilson, a wife and mother at the threshold of a mental breakdown, while also offering one of modern cinema’s most memorable villains as doppelgänger Red.
Wheezing and scuttling through her quest for equality, Red and her feral family haunt the Wilsons with murderous intentions, yet her surprising personal plight turns Red into this almost sympathetic monster.
Designed like a porcelain twin who’d think nothing of plucking out your eyeballs, Red is a special character indeed, and Nyong’o went to great lengths to carve out a realistic portrayal.
You think that voice was just a random invention? Nope, she studied a condition called ‘spasmodic dysphonia’ before shooting started, as Peele’s script stated Red ‘hadn’t used her voice for a long time’.
This creates a fascinating parallel between Nyong’o and Joker actor Joaquin Phoenix, as the latter admitted to researching ‘pathological laughter and crying’ in preparation for his role as Arthur Fleck.
Both performances have since influenced big discussions about social representation and cinematic responsibility in the last nine months.
Any filmmaker worth his salt will know that music is one of the most important aspects to a piece, and Us’ string-based reconfiguration of classic hip-hop tune I Got 5 On It is arguably Peele’s masterstroke here.
The original song itself is introduced early on in the film as the Wilsons drive down to the beach, but the director’s eye (and ear) for eeriness provides him with a kind of supernatural talent for creating bizarrely epic atmospheres.
Instrumentals from I Got 5 On It are later churned out through what can only be described as The Devil’s personal orchestra.
In a just world, Peele’s exquisite command of his vision would once again see the writer/director nominated for the big awards come early 2020, but the established ‘inferiority’ of horror films will surely deem this notion laughable amongst Academy voters.
Apart from perhaps David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the past decade hasn’t produced a pure horror film even close to the calibre of Us. Interestingly, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis was brought onboard for both features, and his skill for stylising these hellish worlds should also be applauded.
Who knew that claustrophobic, micro-budgeted horrors could look so damn good?
Like many Hollywood classics across the years, Us simply yearns for repeat viewings. It’s a dark puzzle stuffed with nods to other films, and theorist-pleasing twists and turns.
Adelaide’s huge moment in the final act is just the tip of the iceberg, and the world-building abilities of Peele continue to shine in just his second feature-film; did you know that Us and Get Out are apparently two quarters of a horror quadrilogy set in the same universe?
Long live the twisted genius of this American auteur.
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