There’s an enlightening recent documentary, Horror Noire, which traces the history of black horror cinema through years of metaphorical monsters, gross stereotyping and degrading blacksploitation silliness, a history in which a black actor’s character rarely survived past the halfway point of a horror movie and their lines were 50 percent the word “damn”.
Tellingly, the watershed moment Horror Noire uses to begin its narrative is from 2017’s Get Out, Jordan Peele’s debut film as writer and director, and one which won him an Oscar for best script – something few horror films have ever managed. The terror in the pictured scene, say the commentators – is that felt by a person of colour in a white, affluent, suburban neighbourhood, which is not something that had been captured on film before.
Peele’s long-awaited follow-up, Us, is no less revolutionary, but it is less explicit in its messaging. The political point here is simple: the protagonists in Us, the middle class family at the heart of the action, the lovable Winstons, are black. There’s a shy boy, a confident girl, a goofy all-American dad (Winston Duke) and a mother with a secret (Lupita Nyong’o). They’re not slasher fodder – they’re the ones you’re rooting for. It shouldn’t be progressive, but it is.
Us plays on the trope of the home invasion film, a modern horror staple that strikes to the very heart of the American psyche – Bad people! Horrible ones! In your property! Now! And your WiFi has gone down!!! But this is a Jordan Peele script, and therefore there is a twist: the people invading the family’s home look exactly like the Winstons, but wearing red jumpsuits and carrying scissors. You can guess what they do with the scissors.
As horror conceits go, it’s a deeply creepy one – especially when Nyong’o’s ‘red’ mother begins speaking, unleashing a pained, guttural, dusty drawl. Horror films can often be seen as a doss job for a Hollywood star – if ever there’s a time to phone in a performance, it’s there – but Nyong’o gives it the full Oscar-winner effort, shaping out two fully rounded characters: the mother and her evil alter-ego.
As each member of the family must individually confront their own doppelganger, there are battles, there are jump scares and there are plenty of laughs too, which can often be an awkward balance to pull off in a horror film, but one which Jordan Peele excels at.
In fact, there’s plenty of satire here as the film scratches America’s underbelly to find the shadows behind the American dream. The initial setting for the horror – Santa Cruz boardwalk – is somewhere that’s meant to be fun, but every Lost Boys fan knows that it is, of course, full of damn vampires. There, a young Adelaide Wilson, played as an adult by Nyong’o, wins a Michael Jackson T-shirt, a symbol of the fallen hero. Music is used brilliantly too: ’90s hip hop banger ‘I Got Five On It’ by Luniz appears first when the family are singing along in the car. Later, its ominous chords thunder out whenever danger is present. Peele shows us horror among the familiar, and it’s all the more scary as a result.
Alas, Us is not perfect. Towards the end of the film, the concept becomes a little stretched, even by its own internal logic. But it’s a film that confirms Peele as that rarest of things – a true auteur.