Jordan Peele, director of the era-defining Get Out, has a reputation for topicality, but he may have accidentally outdone himself in the prologue to his highly praised second feature.
Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) triumphs at a fairground stall and wins a thematically appropriate prize. “That shirt better not give her nightmares,” her mom says. It is the mid-1980s and the T-shirt celebrates Michael Jackson’s Thriller. As Spinal Tap said at Elvis’s grave: “Too much f**king perspective.”
What follows does not have the satirical focus of Get Out – nothing much does – but Us’s epic strangeness sets it apart from any recent horror release.
We get quickly to the meat (and blood and organs) of the story. Adelaide has grown up into the nervy form of Lupita Nyong’o. One idyllic summer day, she and her family set out for a holiday by the same beach were she had her earlier trauma.
Gabe (Winston Duke) is the sort of amiable duffer that the director often plays in his TV show. Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), their daughter, is a smart-ass kid with a fading interest in athletics. Jason (Evan Alex), their son, is oddly attached to a Halloween mask.
After spending an afternoon with their bitchy pals – Elisabeth Moss dominates as a rosé-swilling mother – they retire for a quiet evening in the cabin.
To this point, the film has played almost like a sit-com. The laughs never stop, but they turn more acidic when a family exactly like themselves turns up in the driveway.
All this is in the first 20 minutes or so. From then on to the hectic close, the film revels in allusion and extravagant gesture. Much credit must go the cast. Nyong’o gets the chance to show off all her theatre skills in a dual role as the increasingly courageous Adelaide and her sinister double. You don’t often get such opportunities outside the world of grand opera.
The malign Adelaide growls in a voice that sounds as if it hasn't breathed vowels for centuries. The earthly Adelaide moves seamlessly from angst-ridden mother to compelling Final Girl (you will need to see the film to discover if we mean this literally). Moss is scarcely less impressive in a supporting role: part Bette Davis by the sea, part scary clown-doll made flesh.
The tone is sometimes torn between the farcical and the macabre – the family rapidly become as blasé as Buffy in assault mode – but Peele’s ear for a good joke distracts from the jarring shifts. The extended gag involving a voice-controlled music system would seem out of place if it didn’t have such a satisfactory punchline.
"But what's it really about?" I hear you say. Influenced by the Twilight Zone episode Mirror Man, Us follows in a grand tradition of doppelgänger horrors that stretches back to The Student of Prague over a hundred years ago.
Michael Abels’s choral jabs increase the unease. Mike Gioulakis’s camera risks impenetrable levels of darkness.
The millions who enjoyed Get Out will, however, expect Us to engage in debate about socio-political discontents. Early on, when asked to identify themselves, the invaders declare: “We are Americans.” No other nation is sufficiently hooked on national psychoanalysis to create an equivalent of the Great American Novel.
The unavoidable pun in the title suggests that Us really is making a stab for The Great American Horror Film. Its approach is simultaneously scattergun and bewildering. The reference to the gruesome Hands Across America charity event in 1986 confirms Peele’s cynicism about bourgeois gestures of support to the needy.
There is something here about the way America ignores a variety of underclasses. There is something else about the narrow line between the human and the bestial.
Peele is brave enough to leave all these options open. Some viewers will reach the end a tad frustrated. Few will fail to enjoy the journey.
Opens March 22nd