The underclass is coming to destroy us, and we will deserve it. That is the simple, overarching message of Jordan Peele’s witty meta-horror film, Us. The ‘us’ he aligns viewers with is a middle-class American family of four, the Wilsons, and ‘they’ are their doppelgangers. The disenfranchised doubles have been living somewhere mysterious, cut off from the comforts of society. This other mother, father and two children appear one night in the Wilsons’ driveway wearing blood-red jumpsuits and wielding large golden scissors, the better to slice up their counterparts. Class warfare has rarely broken out with such frightening panache.
Despite the film’s veneer of a social theme, Us is different from and less inventive than Get Out, Peele’s amazing debut as writer and director. That film was a scathing critique of racial assumptions and stereotyping, cloaked in comic-horror. Us reverses the formula, and works best as a smart, intricately structured take on that genre, with a message that is plain but never deep. Peele is masterful at the horror part, though. Playfully using classic tropes of the genre while channelling primal fears, Us can make you laugh and cower at once.
More like this:
-Is horror the most disrespected genre?
-Lords of Chaos: The grisly film that has caused outrage
-Diversity in Hollywood: Why there’s still more to be done
The film starts slowly, which allows Peele to drop clues about what’s to come. Us is full of small visual touches and references meant to lure viewers back again and again to find more. In the opening scene, set in 1986, the camera zones in on a television commercial promoting Hands Across America, a real event in which people across the country joined hands to raise money for the hungry and homeless. Anyone who has seen the film’s trailer will instantly spot the resemblance between the event’s logo – a row of red cut-out figures, like paper dolls – and the red jumpsuited doppelgangers.
Other references are more obscure. A homeless man with stringy blonde hair holds a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11. He recurs through the film, but Peele leaves it to viewers to go home and look up the Biblical reference on his sign. (It is chilling.)
He is first seen as a theme park, where a small girl wanders into a funhouse hall of mirrors. A sign there reads: “Vision Quest: Find Yourself,” and that’s exactly what she finds. Little Adelaide spots her doppelganger, and is terrified from that day on.
The slight differences in the doppelgangers are more alarming than exact duplicates might have been
When the film leaps to the present, Adelaide is Lupita Nyong’o, married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), who adds comic relief as a sometimes oblivious guy who tells bad dad jokes. Their teenage daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), is always on her phone. Their younger child, Jason (Evan Alex) unaccountably wears a mask on top of his head. They are at the family beach house, conveniently near to the scene of Adelaide’s childhood trauma.
The action picks up when the doubles invade the house. Each of the actors has a dual role, and Peele has directed them with such nuance that the slight differences – the doppelgangers’ faces remain still no matter how violent they become – are more alarming than exact duplicates might have been. The film centres around Nyong’o, whose performance as the double is especially eerie. Her voice is croaky and halting, as if she has not spoken in years, as she resentfully tells a story about a girl who “had a shadow”. That girl was a princess who found her prince and a happy life, while the shadow was hungry and living in the dark. Joseph brilliantly displays the creepy look on her face as Zora’s evil counterpart. Like Nyong’o’s, her double’s physical movements are as swift and pouncing as an animal’s.
The family fights off the invaders in scenes that Peele creates with sleek precision. They try to escape by boat and by car. Adelaide thwacks the Others with a fireplace poker – always strangely close at hand in horror films. There are stabbings with scissors, evoking Hitchcock. The melodramatic music cues, calling attention to danger in the style of old movies, signal that Us is a meta-layer removed from those hokey films, that the urge to yell, “Don’t go down that dark road alone!” is a trick Peele has knowingly set up. Even as the scenes become a bloody mess, the film is always lucid, cutting from wide shots of corpses to suspenseful angles seen from the besieged family members’ points of view.
The film takes an unexpected, spectacular stylistic turn
Peele keeps ramping up the intensity of the action, but then the film takes an unexpected, spectacular stylistic turn. As we come close to understanding the secret behind Adelaide’s funhouse encounter, the film becomes more imagistic, almost surreal. The music is thumping and modern, and we see young Adelaide and her double dancing in ballet classes. Those scenes bring the film Black Swan to mind, rather than slasher movies. The sequence is a revelation, evidence that Peele can be an exceptional film-maker in an entirely different mode.
Even though Us leans into its genre, social issues linger as subtext. The Wilsons are black, but their race is not addressed as an issue. The exception is a scene in which Gabe confronts the doubles in the driveway and deliberately changes his grammar to sound thuggish, using the image of the threatening black man as a ploy. Even then, the film leaves it to viewers to infer the comment on racial stereotyping.
Peele himself has been blunt about how the film deals with America. “This country, and how this country looks at the world, we have a fear of the outsider,” he has said, describing his theme. “No one really wants to look at their faults, their guilt, their demons.” By the end, Hands Across America, a well-intentioned event, has been subverted into a symbol of evil. The most chilling lesson from Us: you just might be your own evil twin.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.