As an ascending writer and director specializing in horror cinema, Jordan Peele suggests an eager student. "Get Out" and "Us" are loaded with themes, symbols, and -- despite the claims people make of their originality -- endless quotations from other horror films.
These often distracting signifiers resemble a kind of formalist homework, completed by someone who wants to be inducted into the canon along the ranks of icons such as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg.
For instance, "Us" opens in 1986 with a close-up of a television broadcasting an advertisement for Hands Across America, an event in which millions of Americans held hands in a human chain to combat homelessness. Next to the TV, videotapes of "The Goonies" and "C.H.U.D." are conspicuously visible. This juxtaposition of references is creepy and does compel one to wonder where Peele is headed. But such images are also mannered and self-conscious in the vein of other nostalgia projects like Netflix's "Stranger Things." One can feel Peele fussing over each artifact.
Fast-forward to the present day, where a prosperous African-American family is on their way to vacation with their even more comfortable Caucasian yuppie friends. In the car, Peele makes sure that we notice that a boy, Jason (Evan Alex), is wearing a T-shirt sporting the classic poster for Spielberg's "Jaws," along with a mask for the Wolf Man from the 1940s-era Universal Studios horror movies. Even as someone who grew up as a horror-minded nerd, I find these wardrobe choices hard to believe, as I've met people twice Jason's age who've never heard of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" let alone "Jaws" or especially the "Wolf Man" movies that were initially headlined by Lon Chaney Jr.
If I'm sounding nitpicky, it's because Peele's emphatic direction in such scenes encourages one to pore over the anal-retentive details. In its first act, before it cuts loose, "Us" feels even less incidental and spontaneous than "Get Out." The reference to "Jaws" is paid off when Alex disappears at the beach, prompting his mother, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), to search for him in a manner that echoes Roy Scheider's panicked exertions in Spielberg's film. Which is to say that our emotional reaction to the scene itself is needlessly cluttered with a pop cultural reference.
The Wolf Man mask leads to eerier and more resonant business. When Adelaide, her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), their teenage daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason are stalked in their beach house by a cabal of red robe-clad doppelgängers, Jason's double wears a mask that appears to be fashioned from a toboggan. The contrast between the polished and makeshift masks encapsulates the disparity between the relatively wealthy family and the shadow clan that toils underground, representing the underclass that suffers for our privilege. In this moment, Peele's fan-boy zeal meshes seamlessly and suggestively with his film's theme.
Ultimately, the primary reference driving "Us" is Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," as Peele similarly loads his film with references and motifs that come to suggest a subterranean language that reveals a well of evil hidden in plain sight within pop culture. The difference is that Kubrick had the confidence to risk throwing his code away. He didn't care whether or not you noticed what he was up to, which led to the sort of ongoing fan obsession that drove "The Shining"-related essay film "Room 237." Peele needs you to see his considerable ambition.
Yet there's another side of Peele. One can say that he's haunted as a filmmaker by a doppelgänger of his own. His Dr. Jekyll, so keen to be seen as an auteur, a desire that has already been fulfilled, is trailed by a Mr. Hyde who craves hard-hitting horror. "Us" is less satisfying in certain fashions than "Get Out," making less sense and quickly devolving into a repetitive stalk-and-slash formula that, perversely, does almost nothing with the central double-family hook. Yet "Us" is also less pat, less good for you.
Perhaps the acclaim of "Get Out" annoyed Peele just a little bit. Everyone keyed into the film's efficient induction of white guilt, conveniently ignoring its incendiary third act, which called for a revolution that was quickly halted by a formulaic happy ending. Many reviews of "Get Out" read as if they were written by the villainous liberal white family at the film's center — as critics congratulated themselves for getting the theme while ignoring the howling rage of the violence.
"Us" is much grislier than "Get Out," and its political critique is less predigested. It's impossible, this time, to overlook the spectacle of families butchering one another in their homes — an expansion of the self-destructive implications of the climax of "Get Out."
There are images in "Us" that are worthy of classic horror films, particularly the shots of the sterile labyrinthine world of the doppelgängers. But Peele, the student, cheapens them with a twist ending as stupid as anything in Wes Craven's similarly-themed "The People Under the Stairs."
Peele's immensely talented, but he should let his Hyde have the wheel more often. Hyde would have the confidence, and the sadism, to let these great images hang, pointedly un-rationalized.