It seems that we have now reached the peak of creative drought in movie names: All we need is one pronoun and voila, problem solved! First there was Him, Them, Her, It and now, Us.
Directed by the guy originally from Mad TV, Jordan Peele, Us is about the family of Nakia and M’Baku in their battle against a mysterious group of doppelgangers that appear in front of their house one night. Oh, and all of this happened because young Nakia took a wrong turn in a mirror funhouse one night.
Despite coming from the director of the highly excellent Get Out, I wasn’t exactly sure if this film would work out. One-time wonders are common in Hollywood, and besides, after the horror genre had been through nightmare demons, hokey-mask slashers and alien impregnation, something like doppelgangers seemed a bit too street-level to be spooky.
After seeing the movie, I now flinch involuntarily whenever I see scissors.
Main character Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o, had a disconcerting experience in her youth where she ran into an exact double of herself in a funhouse by the beach. Many years later, as a mother of two children, she moves back to that same beach despite her trauma. Her troubled past comes to haunt her when one night, a family of four turn up in her driveway, looking exactly like her own family.
One thing to note is that this isn’t Get Out. Us is more of a straight-up horror flick rather than a mix between comedy and horror. There are some funny moments for sure, but most of the screen time is filled with blood, blades and white rabbits. And no being coy with it, this is some well-crafted horror. What’s really scary isn’t having a spider leap out in front of your face; it’s feeling something slowly crawl up your back but not knowing whether it’s a spider or just your imagination. This movie knows that well because there is taut tension throughout nearly its entire run.
However, a huge part of the suspense may be due to its main villains, the doppelgangers. While I initially thought it was a bit dull, the actors executed it masterfully. It is incredible how disconcerting it is to have something that looks human act so inhuman, doubly so if there is a normal human right next to it for comparison. Every movement, expression and sound the doppelgangers make is so bizarre that it makes it impossible to guess what they are going to do next.
That’s what mainly helps the horror here. The doppelgangers may look like the main characters, but because there’s no knowing what they will do, you can never see what’s coming next. Unpredictability is crucial to suspense — like the moment when you get your semester grades back — and it is present throughout all of the movie. The origin and the truth behind the doppelgangers are also kept a mystery throughout most of the film, which also adds to the thick fog surrounding everything.
Huge credit needs to be given to the actors, of course. They portrayed the humans in a likable and sympathetic light, yet as the doppelgangers, they somehow managed to look exactly the same and yet feel like completely alien entities. The adults are trustworthy talents, but the child actors were especially impressive, considering the sheer gap between their characters and the doppelgangers.
This is part of the reason why it’s all the more disappointing when the story doesn’t quite match up to the atmosphere created.
It seems that Jordan Peele’s approach to horror is to put all his scary nightmares into scenes and then weave a story around it. Get Out admittedly had this problem, with the explanation behind its hijinks feeling rather out of tune, but it’s even more noticeable here.
Having doppelgangers is fine, but sooner or later you have to start explaining what they are and where they come from, and it is here where the movie lost me. While there will be no spoilers here, the backstory behind these scissor-happy clones leaves so many holes and questions. It’s such a sudden jump in scale and genre, and it doesn’t fit at all into the rest of the film’s more grounded feel.
That flaw is nowhere enough to bring down the movie, of course, as it is worth the price of admission for the tension alone that will leave a severe phobia of mirror houses. However, it is still something that keeps me from fully enjoying this movie. Not a deal breaker but not insignificant either.
If you are a fan of horror, this is something that absolutely deserves a watch. While its end result may feel a bit clunky, the ride getting there is still such a mind-bender that will no doubt lead to a total extermination of white rabbits (they play a part, I assure you). Us scares us, traumatizes us, frightens us and, even despite its short-comings, satisfies us.