The list of horror movies that have won major Oscars isn’t long but it is impressive, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist to The Silence of the Lambs. It’s tough to break through the stereotype that the genre is meant mainly for cheap thrills. Just ask Stanley Kubrick (RIP), whose classic The Shining failed to snag even a single nomination from the Academy.
While the year is young, if there’s justice in Hollywood Jordan Peele’s Us should be joining this hallowed list among the cream of the crop. If for nothing else, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance(s) should be seriously considered for Academy Award consideration.
The movie opens in 1986 with a brief but stirring prelude, as we watch young Adelaide disobey her parents and wander off into a house of mirrors on the beach at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk carnival. She is confronted by a doppelganger of herself, and terrified, scrambles toward the exit. After escaping Adelaide has become mute, and her parents seek out the help of a therapist to try and understand what trauma she may have endured.
Flash forward to present day. Adelaide (Nyong’o) is now married with two children of her own and seems to have overcome her harrowing childhood encounter. But during a summer trip to their lake-house her double returns, along with a matching family of its own, and they proceed to terrorize Adelaide, her brood, and the audience with bone-chilling efficacy.
As a story contingent on surprises, I’ll cut the narrative short there. But beyond plot, any discussion of this film’s merits needs to begin with a standing ovation for the cast. As described, Nyong’o is phenomenal portraying two vastly different characters and exerting herself – and her vocal cords – in a performance unlike any I’ve ever seen. The robotic deliberateness of her movements as Adelaide’s double, Red, is a feat of its own as her every motion, posture, and gait seem practically superhuman, or supernatural.
Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex round out the family as her husband, teenage daughter, and preteen son, and all play their roles laudably. In particular Joseph and Alex shine while playing their evil twins. Joseph’s leering smile will surely haunt some dreams, and Alex’s animalistic scrambling and scampering may send a shiver up the spine.
From the opening frame the movie is also packed with Easter Eggs and allusions to other movies and media. Nearly all of these went over my head, but they are mainly a bonus and missing out didn’t dampen my enthusiasm in the slightest. One reference impossible to miss though is Michael Jackson’s Thriller, both the song and the celebrated music video. It’s featured in the giant logo on the shirt young Adelaide wins in the carnival during the opening scene. Her mother remarks to her father she hopes it doesn’t give her nightmares.
This was particularly affecting to me as one of my strongest memories from early childhood involves sneaking out of bed one night and into the back of the den where my parents were watching TV. Thriller came on and when Michael Jackson turned into a werewolf I was scared out of my wits. I yelped, ran back upstairs as fast as I could, and refused to watch Thriller for years after.
Fittingly, while it hasn’t been quite that long, it has indeed been a long time since any horror flick continued to give me the creeps after it ended. The last time I can recall was nearly 20 years ago when The Sixth Sense had me sleeping with my bedside lamp on for a few nights. Yet here I found myself the night after I saw Us reluctant to go into the basement and retrieve my laundry.
Thrills aside, the movie does appear to have a deeper moral; though it’s far less overt than the race related messages core to Peele’s last picture Get Out. Without giving too much away the evil doubles, referred to on screen as “the tethered”, appear as a stark reminder at our society’s darker underbelly of poverty. For each of us for whom the U.S. represents a comfortable secure life, there is someone out there stuck in our nation’s cyclical underclass.
While it’s easiest and tempting to simply push them out of sight and out of mind, our success is partly unconsciously undergirded by them propping us up. And the longer we go without addressing the issue, the more forceful the reaction may be when it comes.