Doppelgänger horror has been a long-time subgenre of scary movies. Enemy (2013), based on the mind-bending book The Double by José Saramago, is probably one you most recently heard about. Ironically, there was another movie released that same year also titled The Double but not based on the book, which also explored similar themes. Even more superior to either, though, is the lesser known Japanese movie Doppelgänger (2003) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. You could go further back, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and so on. All of these movies know the strength of keeping an explanation for the phenomena of doubles a mystery and how to harness that homicidal drive to end the existential competition. Now comes writer-director Jordan Peele, who understands the power of these elements, with Us, but maybe reaches to hard to say more thereby taking some bite out of the horror.
In keeping with the subgenre, don’t expect any clear answers as to why a clan of doubles appears in the driveway of the vacation home of the Wilson family played respectively with both creepy unease and easy charm by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke and children Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex. But, Peele, who transcended his reputation as an excellent comedian to become an excellent horror director with the subversive exploration of racism in America with Get Out (2017), is reaching for something else, and it’s not necessarily clear what it is. You could look to the opening title card stating something uncanny about tunnels below America and the evil characters’ red jumpsuits that maybe it implies something about Trump and immigration. But beyond these loose connections nothing more points to that. Us could just as easily be saying something about the distraction of the theme park, and its role in zombifying those seeking to escape reality, which could be pretty subversive because Universal Studios, owners of that Orlando theme park, are distributing this movie.
If Peele is saying something about the sheep-like mentality of diversion and consumerism, it is hard to notice beyond all the blood, beatings and jump scares. By maintaining a sense of mystery about the doppelgängers stalking the vacationing family he keeps the film grounded in metaphor indeed hoping the audience might reach beyond the symbols for meaning. Looking a little deeper, some hints are there. Though it’s funny watching Duke’s character, Gabe, wrestle with a lemon of a boat in the water, there’s a pathos to his intentions of keeping up with the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker and twins Cali Sheldon and Noelle Sheldon). Even more sinister is his blitheness to wife Adelaide’s unease of returning to Santa Cruz, where she got lost as a child and endured a horrific encounter inside a funhouse that, as the movie implies, left her mute for some time as a child.
No one wants to see the movie spoiled, so I will keep details obscure. As far as how it stands as a horror movie, Us is not always as scary as it could have been, and sometimes the lack of explanation feels less like subversion and more like plot holes. Peele also has a preciousness toward the family at the heart of the conflict that doesn’t make you fear for their ability to go up against their terrorizers. He does sneak in a sly wink to make up for all the quick deaths of black people in decades of previous genre movies. There is also an added sense of dread to the black figures against the darkness from which they emerge, which is exceptionally shot by Mike Gioulakis, a cinematographer we have praised on this site numerous times. However, Peele has already made his statement movie with Get Out, and you get a sense that it is hard to top, which does comedy and horror at a more heightened level. Us is a decent follow up but also shows how difficult it is to meet expectations.
Us runs 116 minutes and is rated R. It opens in wide release this Friday, March 22, in the U.S. For tickets in your area, click here. Universal Pictures invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.