Us: Classic Horror with a New Face
I love horror films. I absolutely love the adrenaline of being scared, the rush you feel when you watch a character meet their doom and the way you giggle to yourself after jumping or screaming at certain parts. Going to the movies to see a horror film is a good time for me, and Jordan Peele’s latest movie “Us” doesn’t disappoint in quenching my ever growing thirst for the genre.
In the film, Adelaide Wilson and her husband Gabe take their children Zora and Jason on vacation to a summer home that Adelaide grew up in. She’s anxious about it, to the point of disassociation, she hasn’t been back since being traumatized when she was a child. But Gabe and the kids are excited, so Adelaide keeps her concerns to herself.
What starts off as a relaxing family trip soon takes a sharp turn south when after several unsettling coincidences and a scare that they lost Jason, masked figures invade the house one night. What’s even more shocking is that the intruders are exact copies of the Wilson family, their evil doppelgängers. Once learning that the carbon copies want nothing other than to take the Wilson family’s place in the world, Adelaide and her family must fight for their lives and survive long enough to figure out what the hell is going on.
In order to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I won’t go into much detail about the plot but rather I want to talk about the characters. To me characters and their development are the most important part of storytelling, a horribly developed character can ruin an amazing story. Whereas a brilliantly fleshed out character can make the dullest of stories shine. “Us” is in no way a dull story but the characters definitely make the movie.
Because the doppelgängers are the villains of the movie and the Wilson Family the heroes, each actor had two parts to play and double the work to put it. While crafting out their Wilson family characters, the actors also had to bring to life the evil versions of themselves. I can’t even begin to imagine the hours of prep spent on this. It is clear though, that the actors did their homework and thought every little thing through.
The children Zora and Jason, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, are exceptionally good. Zora might be a typical teenager, but she isn’t stereotyped that way. In most horror films the teenagers are a pain in the ass. They don’t listen to their parents, they argue at every moment and depending on the situation they usually meet their untimely death because of something dumb. However, Zora is ready to do whatever her parents tell her the moment things get weird. Adelaide tells her to put her shoes on, she does so without one question. Gabe asks Jason to get the baseball bat they keep for protection, Zora knowing her brother is too scared to move races off to get it instead. She is ready at all times.
On the other hand, Jason who is played by Evan Alex is a lot like his mother Adelaide. A little weird, but able to think quickly, he is the first to notice the creepy family in the driveway and the first to outsmart his double. He’s not a teenager yet so he falls into the category of the creepy kid that may or may not be just as evil as his doppelgänger. He has his moments, like his mom.
As far as corny dads go, Gabe might be coming for the crown. Played by Winston Duke, who is a whole entire meal, Gabe just wants his family to have a real vacation. He wants to go to the beach, tell dad jokes that embarrass everyone, hang out with friends and even go fishing. He buys a boat just for that very reason, to try and bring his family together so they can have a good time. But as charming as he is, Gabe does fall under the trope of the nonbelieving husband. When Adelaide first tells him about the feeling she has that something bad is about to happen, Gabe dismisses her (gently but a dismissal all the same) and when the family shows up in the driveway he at first is sure someone is trying to play a prank on them. Until the doppelgängers attack and Gabe gets cracked in the ankle with his own baseball bat. Then he realizes this is not a game and his family’s lives are at stake.
While Gabe, Zora, and Jason all have their moments in the spotlight, the true star of the movie is Adelaide. Brought to life but the stupendous Lupita Nyong’o, this movie is her story, her problem, and her solution. Adelaide knows from the beginning that something bad is coming and she’s ready to fight when the time comes. But the most intriguing thing about Adelaide isn’t her readiness to fight, it’s the way she handles every situation thrown at her, throughout the entire movie Adelaide loses her composure maybe twice. Which is impressive as hell given the circumstances. It’s almost as if she’s been expecting something like this to happen all her life.
The great thing about “Us” isn’t the horror or the jump scares (though they were pretty great) but the details, the structure of the characters and the way it was presented as a whole. The way this simple concept of your doppelgänger trying to kill you was given a fresh new face, a dark brown one that hasn’t ever had a chance like this before. What I appreciate most about this movie is the fact that it’s a classic horror idea, that seems new because a Black family hasn’t had the chance to be at the center of a horror film. We’re always the token black friend that dies first, or we don’t die but we don’t get character development either. For years Black people have only been in the background of horror, not getting an opportunity to show how we, as a culture and as people, would react to some creepy shit going down. Now though, we’re starting to get an idea of how that would look.
A favorite part of mine in the film is when the doppelgängers are trying to get into the house and Red knows there’s a spare key under a rock just a few feet from the door. Adelaide, struck by horror, whispers to Gabe about it as the lock is being turned and in exasperation, he exclaims “Spare key?? What kind of white people shit…” before throwing himself at the door to try and keep the copies out. It’s meant to be a comedic moment but it really stayed with me through the whole film. I don’t know any Black person that keeps a spare key outside, hidden under a rock or in the bushes. That’s just a big no-no. When we get locked out of our homes, we just break back into them. By window or by the door, but there is no hidden spare key. Because of the idea that someone could find it, come into your home and kill you. That’s not a thought apparently to white people, seeing as how a lot of them have keys to the front door hidden throughout their yards. Black people, always have to consider the idea that someone is out to hurt us. We don’t have the luxury of safe hidden spare keys.
All in all, “Us” is a horror film that happens to center around a Black family. Which is what we’ve been asking for. Whenever a new scary movie comes out, social media is always full of “If there had of been Black people in the movie, this, this and this wouldn’t have happened” which is a valid criticism. We’re never given the chance to react to horror normally. If we’re given a horror film, the narrative always ends up being about our skin color. It can never be about the fact that sometimes scary things just happen. “Us” is here to change that. It’s not a horror film about race, everyone has an evil doppelgänger. There is no secret gotcha where only Black People are being hunted by themselves, there is no racism in this situation. It’s just a what if horror film that chose to zero in on how the Wilson’s would handle the end of the world. And I really appreciate that.
Twitter has been calling Jordan Peele the new Master of Horror and I think it’s a well-deserved title. He is here to give us Black horror in a way we haven’t seen before. He’s letting Black people be scared for the sake of scariness. Which to me, is long overdue.
Also, if Lupita doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination for the work she put in this movie, I hope we riot.