Jordan Peele's Mastery of Atmospheric Horror Overcomes a Weak Story in 'Us' [Review]

With each generation of horror films, there are different levers that filmmakers pull on to make us cringe and jump. Jordan Peele's newest film, Us, leans further into the horror genre than his freshman directorial outing, 2017's Get Out. As with Get Out, Peele's ability to craft a scene that looks like a normal, upper-middle class  family vacation moment, but something in that scene is subtly askew, is relatively unparalleled in contemporary horror. He sets the audience on edge, even when they don't know what it is that is amiss.

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Jordan Peele's Mastery of Atmospheric Horror Overcomes a Weak Story in 'Us' [Review]

Many horror films find the need to have a long drawn-out monologue to describe that we're supposed to be afraid of some particular boogyman, it's the rare bird that we have a film that just puts the audience on edge and leaves them there. All we know is that we're feeling that tension of dread with us as we wait for the next shoe to drop. Even in the case of the Paranormal Activity films, the scenes tend to be normal… until there's an entity actually doing something. That still takes the monster to set the tension, where Peele will just have someone tilt their head in a particular way, without preamble, and we know things are about to go south rather quickly.

Us opens up in 1986, where a young girl, Adelaide, wanders away from her family while visiting the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and into a hall of mirrors funhouse. Her parents quickly find her again, but by then it's clear something has happened to her, but she refuses to speak.

Cut to the present day, and the girl has grown into a normal wife and mother (played by Black Panther's Lupita Nyong'o). Taking a summer vacation with her husband Gabe (played by another 'Panther alum, Winston Duke), they return to Santa Cruz. Gabe convinces her over her protests to take the family to the beach at the boardwalk.  Adelaide is uncomfortable, spotting the now updated hall of mirrors house once again, but manages to shrug it off and continue with their day.

They return to their vacation house and everything seems well until their youngest son, Jason (played by Evan Alex) asks, "why is there a family standing in the driveway?" That family stands there, and it becomes clear that they look all too familiar. They appear to be clones of Adelaide and her family, but not in a good way.

As the opening 1986 scene sets framed on a television set and a stack of VHS tapes, including Nightmare on Elm Street, C.H.U.D., and others, there's no mistaking Us's spiritual origins. The horror tropes of home invasion/slashers, but adding on the twist of what happens when the entity hunting you is what seems to be an evil clone version of yourself.

Where the film falters is some of the internal logic of the story doesn't make a great deal of sense, and actually doesn't quite work out. There's aspects of the overall "clones" and their relationship to their normal counterparts that feels so contrived to take some of the shine off of the final product. It won't really be a film to think to hard about after you've left the theater, however what you will remember is how it made you feel at the time, and for those who are fans of horror, that's what it's mostly about in the end.

Us opens everywhere on March 22nd, and is rated R.

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About Bill Watters

Games programmer by day, geek culture and fandom writer by night. You'll find me writing most often about tv and movies with a healthy side dose of the goings-on around the convention and fandom scene.
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