A select few received golden tickets to Jordan Peele’s latest horror experience Us on Friday night. Geeks of Color was able to secure a seat at the Los Angeles screening attended by Tracee Ellis Ross and Janelle Monae. Even after only one horror film, the audience knew to trust Peele’s direction. It’s a unique experience, these days, to discover an original intellectual property that brings audiences to such flurried excitement.
In the same tradition as Jaws, Aliens, and Poltergeist the comedian turned director/producer has deftly figured out how to use horror as a tool, not simply to scare but to drive the narrative. Endearing characters frightfully aware of their distress lured the audience to moments of impassioned Black reaction. The sophomore slump does not exist for Peele. Instead, a new era of cinema has officially begun. A new master of horror is at work.
Taking the classic American family dynamic, writing characters with some of the whitest names in history, and casting a dark skin family to play them is a political statement in and of itself. There will be plenty of time to dissect the various symbols and Easter eggs (spot the bowl of Fruit Loops?) when the film reaches general audiences. For now, we can safely say that Peele is looking at the more subtle forms of racism, the kind even the perpetrator doesn’t know they’re inflicting, and Black motherhood. Mixing the classic film aesthetics of the ’70s and ’80s, which would later define the horror and comedy genres to a new generation, Peele injected Black culture with such a light brush, you’d have to be in the club to see it. Us truly feels like another FUBU moment. Like Beyoncé dropping a visual album unannounced, Kaepernick making the NFL pay him, and mourning the loss of Prince, Us could be unifying zeitgeist moment.
Peele gave himself every advantage by casting Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as the heads of an atypical American family. As Adelaide, Nyong’o once again proves she’s the best actor in the game. Flipping fluidly between two intense and layered characters, Nyong’o demonstrates a mastery of the physical element of performance. Jutting at sharp angles at moments, and moving like a fluid dancer the next, everything about her presentation left me feeling deeply disturbed. A Best Acting Oscar for a horror film is rare, but Nyong’o could easily join Kathy Bates (Misery) and Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) at next year’s ceremony.
Duke’s comedy chops are on full display in his performance of corny dad, Gabriel. Leaning into the ’80s tone of the film, Duke created an iconic dad ala Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes this such a great performance. It’s not dry humor, nor is it over the top slapstick. What I liked most was Duke’s vulnerability. To see a man of his size afraid, putting on pretenses, failing to lower his voice to be more intimidating, and following his wife’s lead is rare, honest, and therefore resonant.
The children, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph (Zora) and Evan Alex (Jason) are standouts as well. Both children are deep in the throes of puberty. Zora seems to gain all her strength from being bratty to her younger brother, who is keenly aware of how to annoy his big sister. Joseph and Alex are exceptional when switching between identities. As “Red Zora,” Joseph derives a near sadistic level of enjoyment from chasing down her duplicate. Alex gives a look, you’ll know the one, that could stop the world spinning. Peele has introduced the world to two future greats.
The cinematography for Us, photographed by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Glass) is a career-defining moment for the veteran cinematographer. Visually similar to Allen Daviau (E.T. and Harry and the Hendersons,) Gioulakis struck the perfect chord between family adventure movie and classic horror. In one scene, featuring both versions of Nyong’o’s character, a large depth of field is used to hold them both in the same shot. One version practically breathes on the camera’s lens, while the other stands at the back of a classroom. The shot would be impossible for the human eye to recreate naturally, and it brings such an element of hysteria and discomfort that Nyong’o could be doing nothing, and the framing would cause terror.
The musical soundtrack is where Peele’s comedy skills are most prominently on display. By now, everyone has heard the string version of “Five on It.” The jarring, screeching violins turned a chill smoking classic into nightmare fuel. The film uses those strings to great effect within the movie. But untouched versions of “Fuck the Police” and “Good Vibrations” could be the prominent musical memories left with viewers.
Run and grab your tickets. Do not wait, the internet will spoil the best parts. People will not be able to help but pontificate wildly at the hidden messages, symbols, and the ever-burning question, “What happens next?”
Us will be in theaters everywhere March 22.