We have met the enemy and they are Us.
The best horror films create a story or characters that the audience cares about, while creating a storyline where they can’t predict the outcome. Us is a film that accomplishes this, developing a strange and mysterious event with mostly unknown reasons in which the protagonists must escape.
A family on vacation returns to their house only to encounter murderous doppelgängers of themselves. In the follow-up film to Get Out, Jordan Peele takes on dark reflections of his characters to achieve new levels of scariness. The trailer seems to enhance the notion of reflection, by using rorschach-style imagery on the intertitles. Grab two identical cans of your favorite adult-beverage and let’s get down to Us.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
In 1986, a family visits the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders off into the funhouse of mirrors and encounters a doppelgänger of herself. When her parents find her 15 minutes later, she has been frightened so much that she can’t speak, and is taken into therapy to assist her coping with whatever happened to her. Thirty three years later, in present day Adelaide (also called Addy, Lupita Nyong’o) and her family are heading to a vacation lake house outside Santa Cruz.
Her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), shows off the new boat he purchased, while their daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is more interested in playing on her phone, and their son Jason (Evan Alex) has fun playing alone or trying to scare his sister. They visit the beach the next day to meet with their friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss & Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters (Cali & Noelle Sheldon). Jason wanders off to use the bathroom near the funhouse, now rebranded from Addy’s youth. Adelaide freaks out that he went missing, barely able to keep her anxiety under control, but she calms down when returns.
That night Jason notices “a family” in their driveway and Gabe goes out with a baseball bat to frighten the interlopers away. The four mysterious people in red coveralls scatter, attempting to break into the house. They manage to do so, and the Wilson’s realize that each intruder looks just like them, yet more menacing or maniacal. Each doppelgänger confronts their counterpart: Gabe’s drags him out to the boat, Jason’s double goes with him to play, and Zora’s other chases her out of the house and down the road.
Addy’s double is the only one to be able to speak and explains cryptically that she is Addy’s shadow. A person of flesh and blood tethered to Adelaide, forced to eat rabbit “raw and bloody.” This other, called “Red” in the credits, refers to all the others as Americans, when asked to identify themselves. Gabe manages to kill his mirror, Abraham, while Zora evades her shadow, and Jason locks his duplicate in a closet. Addy breaks free of her bonds and they all escape on the boat to the Tylers house across the lake.
At that house, the doppelgängers of the Tylers have killed the family and are wandering around the house doing things the Tylers might have done, but in a twisted and unfamiliar way – as if unsure about the actions. When the Wilson’s arrive, they dispatch the mirror-universe Tylers and catch a newscast showing that doppelgängers are popping up all around the county, killing people, and also taking part in a strange act of forming a human chain, single file, hands linked. The Wilsons drive away running over Zora’s doppelgänger, Umbrae, and killing it.
The next morning they drive back to their own car, finding it on fire. Jason’s duplicate, Pluto, has set a trap to stop them, but remembering that Pluto imitates Jason’s actions, Jason walks backwards causing Pluto to step into the flames and die. Red steps out of a shadow and snatches Jason. Addy becomes inconsolable and heads after him, entering the fun house on the boardwalk again – facing her fears.
She finds a hidden entrance to the tunnels behind the attraction and descends into a strange area where rabbits roaming free. She does not find Jason, but Red is waiting for her explaining that they are part of some experiment, where people were “copied” but they were unable to manufacture a soul, so it was shared by the duplicates. As Red speaks flashbacks occur of Addy’s life, with Addy’s actions occurring underground with the doppelgängers acting out similar, yet perverted versions of the same scenes. For example Addy dances in a ballet recital, while young Red performs a similar, yet perverse version of the same dance.
Addy resists Red’s attacks, denying the mirrored-other the satisfaction of killing her, and manages to skewer Red with a fireplace poker she retrieved at the Tylers. Red dies. Addy finds Jason and escapes to the surface, driving away with her family in an ambulance they found. As they drive Addy recalls more details from Red’s story and her encounter as a child. Specifically that young Red choked her, and dragged her into the underground. Red then switched places with Addy and went up top to live out Addy’s life. Addy, you see, is not driving the ambulance. That’s Red who has forged a new life for herself, having killed and assimilated her duplicate. Jason looks at his “mother” realizing that something seems off, as they drive away from Santa Cruz. A final shot shows the tethered doppelgängers lined up across mountains and fields, just like Addy’s “Hands Across America” shirt she wore the night of her disappearance.
“And then… there was us.” – Red
Us, much like Jordan Peele’s debut directorial effort Get Out, is a multi-layered film about horrific events with socio-economic overtones. I’ve made much discussion this year in 31 Days of Horror about mirrors, doppelgängers and symmetry in writeups about Candyman, The Thing and The Shining, which seem to have been a setup for viewing Us. Peele makes the film a masterclass of creepy moments, social commentary and homages to other films.
The use of doppelgängers and reflections is prevalent in Us. In fact it’s the basis for the plot of the film. But besides the obvious mirroring of the characters, there’s many other examples of duality in the film. I had mentioned the trailer’s use of Rorschach blots for the titles. Additionally, the film has the Tyler twins, two actual twins (played by twin actresses). The number 11 shows up often, between the homeless man’s sign for “Ezekiel 11:11,” a baseball game on TV tied at 11, or Jason noticing the clock at 11:11pm. The number itself also being a mirrored/dual image of “1.” There’s also the use of mirrors, reflections and symmetry to create the illusion of duality. But the other mirroring that Us creates is a unique construct. The film uses the idea of dual elements, which may or may not be the same, to create a whole. The obvious reference to this is the Tethered individual and the Prime individual sharing the same soul, as mentioned by Red. Scissors also fall into this category. Two “knives” that come together to work as one. These and other elements help create an unsettling subtext to the film, behind the main fear of an “other” stalking the protagonist.
Peele also laces the film with socio-economic subtext, that can probably be read better by someone more adept than me. But placing these tethered individuals underground (underclass), who are looked upon as intruders, not only by the characters in the film but the audience as well, sets up a class struggle metaphor. There’s also the “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality that Gabe has, in trying to one-up Josh. He buys a new boat (cheaply), in order to potentially impress his friend. Peele sets up his protagonists, the Wilsons, as a black family, and the Tylers as a white family in a potential depiction of inequality. Even though the Wilson’s seem to be well off, the Tyler’s are shown as the quintessential preppie/yuppie family, and are not shy about their wealth. Additionally the title of the film, Us (sometimes stylized as US), could be mistaken for U.S., an abbreviation for United States. When asked who they are, Red says “we’re Americans.” If that’s not asking for analysis at a deeper level I don’t know what is.
Finally, Peele makes many references both overt and subtle to other films, primarily horror films with Us. The main plot has similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film about people that are replaced by alien look-alikes. There are references to The Shining (overhead shots of the Wilsons driving to their vacation home), Jaws (Jason’s shirt, plus his walk from the beach to the bathrooms, and Addy’s search for him), The Lost Boys (the boardwalk, and the fact it’s Santa Cruz – which was called Santa Carla in that film), plus video tapes can be seen in the opening scene for The Man With Two Brains (more duality), A Nightmare on Elm Street (dreamlike quality of Tethered existence plus finger-knives are proto-scissors, The Goonies (kids go on an underground adventure), and C.H.U.D. (which stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, very apropos). From a pop-culture standpoint the Tethered dress as per Red’s instructions, a red jumpsuit, with a single glove on their right hand. This is an obvious nod to Michale Jackson and his Thriller album (and video) which is a t-shirt young Addy gets in the 1986 flashback. Plus the Hands Across America “stunt” that Red dreams up to get the attention of America too replicates her childhood memories.
Overall the film has some chills, especially when the Tethered first come to the house, but as the story begins to unfold, the quick and sudden scares are replaced with a more existential terror as the machinations and plots of Red and her people are revealed. I don’t know if this is a scarier film than Get Out, but it works on a different level that leaves the viewer unsettled and anxious by the ending of the film. Both films require an amount of participation by the audience in order to gather the full meaning of the films, as Peele doesn’t spoon feed the answers to anyone. He creates a strong film narrative with characters that the audience cares about to elicit the necessary reactions he wants to provoke.
- The use of the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations” during the killing of the Tylers is an interesting dichotomy between the upbeat song and the violent murders. It’s similar in tone to the “Stuck in the Middle With You” sequence from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
- Similarly when a dying Kitty asks her AI assistant Ophelia to “call the police,” Ophelia mis-hears and plays the song “F*** The Police” by NWA instead.
- Classically scissors represent the cutting of life-threads, as seen in mythology by the Fates. But historically in film, scissors as a weapon conform to a Freudian idea of male power or potency. Their shape is indicative of the male genitalia and the stabbing motion when used to kill someone is akin to rape. Here Peele subverts that notion by having female characters use them to kill.
- The rabbits in the film serve multiple purposes. Peele has stated that he finds rabbits to be scary animals. But they also are the food source for the Tethered, while having “scissor-like” ears, potentially tying into that motif. The rabbit cages seen during the opening credits are also set up in rows of 11, which is yet another indication of the numeric repetition in the film.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.