Mild spoilers ahead!
Good horror films generally do one of two things: They tap into a nightmare you already have or they create a whole new nightmare to haunt your dreams going forward. Unsettlingly, Us falls somewhere between the two. Watching it, it felt like a nightmare I’d once had but couldn’t quite access, a prospect so disturbing, my conscious mind refused to process it.
There was a bit of controversy over the labeling of Jordan Peele’s game-changing debut, Get Out—was it a comedy? A horror film? A scathing commentary on race in America? (Yes, yes, and yes). Us’s genre is much easier to identify: It’s a straight-up horror film. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a goodly amount of humor and a lot to say about America’s sins of “othering” people—both past and present.
When we first meet Adelaide (played by Madison Curry as a little girl) she’s at a boardwalk amusement park with her squabbling parents. She wanders away—the blood red candy apple she’s nibbling on shows that Peele is much a visual director as he is a cerebral one—and comes across a house of mirrors: “Find Yourself” the sign on the door beckons. Once inside, the power goes down. She searches desperately for an exit, but keeps bumping into mirrors. Then she is confronted with something so horrifying, she stops dead in her tracks: her identical twin, staring back at her with a rictus grin.
Cut to present day: Adelaide (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) is heading to her childhood home with her gregarious husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and her two children. Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is a typical teenager, interested in borrowing the car and getting into college. Jason (Evan Alex) is shy and a little weird: He wears a plastic monster mask propped on his head at all times.
Being back in her childhood home triggers memories for Adelaide, and when Gabe suggests that she returns to the same beach where her trauma occurred she resists— until she relents.
At the beach, they meet up with their ostentatiously wealthy friends Kitty (Elizabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), who have a pair of spoiled, insipid twin daughters. At one point, Jason wanders off, scaring Adelaide to near death. He doesn’t tell his mother that he saw the back of hulking figure with what appeared to be blood dripping from his fingertips on the boardwalk. Not good.
That night, Adelaide tells Gabe about her childhood trauma. He believes her in an indulgent, slightly patronizing way, and promises to protect her. Then she looks out the window: Staring at the foot of the driveway is a family of four, holding hands like spectral paper dolls, and wearing red jumpsuits. Neighbors? Intruders? Pranksters? Gabe goes out to investigate—the creepy family breaks into the home and a horrible discovery is made: “It’s us,” Jason says, staring at the family dumbly. Four perfect doppelgängers. Both them—and not them.
Adelaide’s doppelgänger speaks in deep, raspy voice, slightly mealy-mouthed, like the voice of someone who hasn’t heard speech in a while. The alternate Gabe seems larger, his beard is fuller, he doesn’t speak but emits menacing yawps. The double of Zora has the same malicious grin as the girl Adelaide stumbled upon in the fun house. And instead of having a child’s mask propped on his head, Jason’s double wears a ski mask that cover his entire face.
So yes, I get a chill down my spine just describing these characters. (And don’t get me started on their fingerless leather gloves and the scissors they all wield.)
But what do they want? Where do they come from? And what does any of this have to do with rabbits, Hands Across America (Google it), and underground tunnels?
Us is much scarier than Get Out, but less funny. Peele occasionally disrupts the tension with a few jokes (a gag with an Alexa-like device is ingenious) but he wants to keep you freaked out, not laughing. The performances are all great—Winston Duke could not be more loveable—but Nyong’o steals the show, creating two indelible personas here, both mama bears, one who has been living in light, the other in darkness.