We’re Americans” – Jordan Peele’s Us (2019)
It is difficult to discuss the promise of Get Out because that word, “promise,” implies unmet potential, and Get Out is indisputably one of the best horror films of the 21st century, full stop. Yet even Peele himself, in a rambling profile of the director in Rolling Stone, acknowledged that, “I’m such a horror nut that the genre confusion of Get Out broke my heart a little.”
While for me there is absolutely no confusion or ambiguity about the place of Get Out in the horror cosmology, to see Peele use the words, “I set out to make a horror movie,” is nonetheless a thrilling feeling. Writing in that same Rolling Stone piece, Brian Hiatt makes the distinction thusly: “Get Out is existentially terrifying; Us is spill-your-soda scary.”
Sure, I’ll take it, even if the unspoken implication—that Us is somehow not also existentially terrifying—is in no way true. That it’s also funny throughout, the humor sinking its tendrils deep and sending roots into even most of the film’s more intense sequences, further serves to muddy that particular water.
Part of any “genre confusion” that may have hovered around Get Out was the impossibility of separating that film’s effectiveness from its social message. Get Out was inextricably about race, and it was impossible for many people to see how effective it would have been if it was about anything else. For those people, there is now Us.
While “the sunken place” in Get Out is one of the most potent metaphors to grace cinema since the sunglasses from John Carpenter’s They Live, the scene in which we are introduced to it is also one of the most effective horror set-pieces ever committed to film.
That’s the “promise” that I was talking about above. Even in Get Out, it’s apparent that Peele is every bit as much a horror auteur as he is a social provocateur—and if we weren’t sure of that, now we have Us, his unabashed entry into the horror canon, to prove it.
Which is, of course, not to suggest that Us is not just as socially provocative as Get Out, in its own way. The central metaphor here is less elegant than “the sunken place,” but perhaps no less potent.
The best horror icons operate successfully both as themselves and as metaphors—but some of the very best may be metaphors for a lot of different things, their meanings shifting and changing depending on the time, and the lens of the viewer. Peele’s Tethered may well fall into that category.
It isn’t by accident that C.H.U.D. is one of the VHS tapes seen framing an old-fashioned tube TV in the film’s 1986 opening—something that isn’t apparent from the trailers, but is from the opening text crawl, which tells us that there are miles of tunnels underneath the United States.
In fact, not much seems to happen by accident in Us, though it also never quite gels as neatly as Get Out. There are more frayed edges for us to keep worrying at after we leave the theater. Whether that is a feature or a bug is up to you.
Like the Coagula in Get Out—which hinted at a more elaborate mysticism that was never explored in the film and only exposited by Peele in his director’s commentary—there is obviously something more than science fictional going on in the central conceit of Us. Characters may talk about it in Biblical terms, but the film never feels a need to hand-hold us through it.
As such, there’s a lot that doesn’t really make sense in the move—the Tethered apparently have sewing machines but maybe not stoves?—but there was also a lot that didn’t necessarily make sense in Suspiria or any number of other horror classics. What matters is if it all feels right, and in Us, at least for me, it almost all does.
Even the final reveal, which seems predictable from early on but is saved for the moment when it will have the most impact, manages to be as satisfying as it is inevitable, and retroactively explains many moments that people in the screening I attended expressed disbelief at as they happened. Props to Peele for pulling that trick off.
I’ve managed to go this far without writing about how great this film looks, the incredible score and use of diegetic music, and the stunning central performances, especially from Lupita Nyong’o, who probably won’t win an Oscar for this, but should.
Even when Us isn’t delivering on all of its many, many ideas, everything else is firing. The horror set-pieces are effective, and with the Tethered, Peele has delivered a “monster mythology”—to use his words—that will sit comfortably in the horror pantheon alongside the greats.
Us won’t be nominated for as many Academy Awards as Get Out. It isn’t a perfect house of cards like that film was. It’s messier, more ambitious, and more imperfect. That may occasionally be a shame, sure, but it also gives us something to chew over at as we lie awake and wonder just which America we really inhabit—the one where we take our comforts for granted, or its terrifying funhouse reflection? Or maybe both?
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.