When evil pervades the quintessential American family in horror, the result is more likely a family terrorized beyond repair. Horror is rife with mommy issues (Psycho, Carrie, The Babadook), daddy issues (Amityville Horror, The Shining), and baby issues (The Exorcist, The Omen.) It doesn’t matter if the villain trespassing in the house is a possessive demon, a vengeful ghost, or a murderous child; some of the best horror movies pit family members against one another in far more horrific scenarios than whatever arguments you’re having with your grandpa at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Jordan Peele’s new movie Us is the rare horror movie about a family that places them in collective survival mode, fighting together rather than disintegrating at the whims of outside forces. One night on vacation, the Wilsons are confronted with a group of terrifying doppelgängers in their driveway, each a twisted, fun-house mirror version of each family member; dorky dad Gabe (Winston Duke) is now a grunting madman, the star-runner teen Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is a crazed hunter, and little Jason (Evan Alex) is a pyromaniac, his face half burnt-off.
They are led by Red, the inverse of the Wilson matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who explains in a disturbingly opaque backstory, her voice like nails on a chalkboard, that as a little girl she was Adelaide’s “shadow,” forever “tethered” to her. When good things happened to Adelaide (presents for Christmas), bad things happened to Red (she only got to eat raw rabbit.) The choices Adelaide made her whole life that Red had to live through were just unacceptable, and now this mirror family wants the Wilsons dead.
Us is thrilling to watch for the first three quarters, particularly Nyong’o’s chilling performance as Red. When the camera leaves her crooked-eyed, tear-stained face to settle in on the other evil doppelgängers, none of them are as scary as she is. The Wilsons, as well, have a driving chemistry that could sustain a whole sitcom series. Deaths at their hands are truly celebratory; after Zora beats someone to death for the first time with a golf club, the pleased cracking of her shoulders was enough to make the audience laugh. But as the movie gradually reveals the scope of its horror and begins to explain its ridiculous mythology (where exactly did this Tethered family come from?), Us falls apart. In overloading the audience with an avalanche of information in the last act to explain the Tethered’s existence, the film ensures viewers will leave with more questions than answers.
While Us does not possess the instantly canonic social commentary that Get Out did, it does radiate messages about the importance of family, which is a message that feels new to the horror genre. In contrast to the closeness of the Wilson family, there are their friends the Tylers, featuring the douchebag dad Tim Heidecker; a rosé and plastic surgery aficionado Elisabeth Moss; and their insufferable twin teen daughters. This is a family that bickers and jokes about murdering each other, lubricating interactions with alcohol just to deal with one another. Major plot spoiler. It isn’t entirely shocking then when things don’t end well for the Tyler family; their detachment from each other is perhaps partly responsible for their demise.
Then there are the Tethered, who might technically be “a family” by biological definition, but possess no attachment, no love, for one another. “It’s just a family outside,” Gabe says naïvely, when he first sees the shadowy figures at the top of the driveway. Any one of them standing there alone might suggest something’s off, and yet mommy, daddy, daughter, and son, hands linked, are assumed to be no threat. And after being faced with their soulless, horrific copies, all of the little moments of disconnect between Adelaide, Gabe, Zora, and Jason that existed in the beginning, the sort of spats that would exist in any family, illuminate relationships taken for granted.
Because of this, Us has an extremely ’80s, almost Spielbergian streak. The film is littered with horror references from the decade, from the retro neon Santa Cruz carnival featured in The Lost Boys, to tales of people lurking underground in empty tunnels and boiler rooms, a la Nightmare On Elm Street or The Goonies, and a Jaws t-shirt that evokes the most terrifying of beach horror. As the family fights their evil twins, who are far stronger and faster than they are, the film’s chaotic, funny energy is reminiscent of Jurassic Park, flitting between fast, high-stakes action, horror, and humor. When the four first meet the Tethered, Gabe offers his newest purchase of the crappy boat named “the Craw Daddy,” which his family members have already roasted to death for being a piece of junk. The four monsters stare at him stone-faced, their eyes bloodshot saucers, and Zora whispers the punchline between sobs: “Nobody wants the boat, dad.”
Jordan Peele is not a cruel horror director, and there’s a funny, optimistic Poltergeist-level “let’s all hold hands around the dinner table and fight this shit together” feeling at the center of Us. It plays like a rebuke to recent horror movies that cast a hard, cynical gaze on family drama, including Hereditary, It Comes At Night, and Killing of a Sacred Deer, which all ruminate on what horrors can kill a family rather than strengthen it. And while Us may be marred with flaws, the family at its center can probably withstand anything.