“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” – Jeremiah 11:11
I know: That was writer-director-producer extraordinaire Jordan Peele’s LAST insta-classic horror film. This one is called “Us” — but time and again, you want to yell “GET OUT!” to the vacationing family who find themselves stalked by a quartet of scissors-wielding doppelgangers who are hell-bent on killing them.
Get out of the house. Get out of the car. Get out of the boat. Get out of the …
Well. You get the idea. But “Us” is many cuts (so to speak) above the standard slasher/stalker thriller, so every time someone goes back into the house, or walks toward the danger, or dares to take the escalator down, down, down — it actually makes sense.
This family isn’t stupid. They’re all whip-smart. But they’re fiercely determined to protect one another, even if it means killing people who look exactly like they do.
Talk about a Freudian Trip.
Certain elements of “Us” carry echoes of the works of Hitchcock and Kubrick, Spielberg and John Carpenter and George Romero, among others — but the immensely talented Peele also has a voice of his own. Even as one laps up the richly textured, fantastically bizarre pleasures of “Us,” one is already eagerly anticipating the next work, and the next, and the next.
Directed with feverish style, beautifully paced, filled with wickedly funny one-liners and sight gags, brimming with bloody good battles and featuring insanely entertaining dual performances from the principal cast (led by nomination-worthy work from Lupita Nyong’o), this is a disturbingly creepy gem.
“What are you?” says a key character in the story.
“We’re Americans,” comes the response.
I’ll not say which line is spoken by the villain, and which belongs to the good guy. It’s just one of the many times when “Us” offers sly commentary on the American Dream — and the distorted, funhouse-mirror image of that dream, which is anything but fun. (After all, the movie is called “Us,” as in “us” as a family unit, but also of course “US” as in “USA.”)
Did I “get” every single plot element, every oddball visual touch, every little piece of the puzzle, even after one key character offers a helpful tutorial deep into the story?
Perhaps not. OK, OK — DEFINITELY not. But isn’t that the case with almost all the great horror films, from “The Shining” to “Hereditary”? There’s something thrilling about exiting a film and instantly wanting to see it again — not to mention anticipating having passionate discussions with others once they’ve seen it.
After a stunningly effective prologue set at a beachfront carnival in 1986 that glues us to our seats, we land in present day, with the Wilsons driving to Santa Cruz for a family vacation.
Lupita Nyong’o is Adelaide, an overprotective mom who is trying her best to relax and get in the spirit of the trip. Winston Duke is her husband, the amiable Gabe, a classic American father whose enthusiasm for the vacation and “dad jokes” have the kids rolling their eyes. Shahadi Wright Joseph is their teenage daughter Zora, who of course is always wearing ear buds and tethered to her phone. Evan Alex is young Jason, who appears to be on some kind of spectrum and often hides behind a Halloween mask.
One night, a family appears in the driveway.
A family that’s a mirror image of the Wilsons — only they’re all wearing red jumpsuits, and there’s pure madness in their expressions, and they’ve got murder on the menu.
Are they zombies? Replicants? Aliens?
Adelaide’s doppelganger (called “Red”) speaks in a croaky voice that will chill you to the spine. Zora’s evil mirror image, Umbrae, has a sicko smile plastered on her face. Gabe’s “evil twin,” Abraham, has the guttural roar and plodding menace of Frankenstein’s monster. And little Jason’s opposite, Pluto (who has a mask of his own,) skitters about on all fours.
Peele and his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis serve up a feast of arresting visuals, whether we’re tracking along with a family member who is being chased (or is on the chase) in dark corridors or deep down a rabbit hole, or outside in the bright of day, when the horror doesn’t take a break just because the sun is out. And the music from Michael Abels, including a recurring theme reminiscent of “The Omen,” is the perfect tour guide for this mad journey.
This is an unforgettable dance with the devil.
Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R (for violence/terror, and language.). Running time: 120 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.