What do we want out of horror movies?
Do we want to be scared? Do we want to be startled? Do we just want to feel uncomfortable, or disturbed, or bad? Whatever we feel, do we want to have to think to get there? Do we just want to feel it in the moment, or do we want it to last? If it lasts, do we want the feeling to be therapeutic, sobering, to give us perspective and make us better, healthier people, or do we not — is horror really cathartic, is it really horror, if it doesn’t debase us? Do we want to face our fears, or be overwhelmed by them? Do we want to leave the theater more confident in the relative safety of our world, or more terrified by it?
We return time and again to these questions because horror never leaves us; in the corner of absolute Cartesian skepticism towards art and literature we’ve painted ourselves into, it remains the one genre that promises to tap into something pure, primal. We don’t even know what that something is, really (it’s certainly nothing so simple as “fear”; any horror fan will tell you that they’ve only been truly scared by media a handful of times). But we know it’s there, and so we watch horror movies — with our brains, hoping they pass through and reach our souls.
For most filmmakers, making horror movies thus constitutes a relentless fight against the viewer’s intellectual reflexes. If you dodge their inherited expectations, if you skip sounds and images they’ve seen before, if you preserve their suspension of disbelief so that their guard stays down, you just might, with enough creativity and the right technique, land a punch to their gut. Maybe two. Maybe ten — some filmmakers are better than others. But even the best have a hard time in our age of infinite content, in which the sheer quantity of available cultural objects and the necessary fugacity of their consumption converge into a frightening, bottomless paradox: never has it been more expected of horror that it be “visceral,” immediate, a perfect right hook, and never has that kind of reason-transcending immediacy been harder to pull off. You’ll sometimes have something like The Witch, which achieves immediacy and makes bank by doing something wholly unfamiliar, but otherwise, the casual horror fan of the 2010s is caught between a rock and a hard place; there’s the “elevated horror” of your Babadooks and It Comes at Nights, with their critic-approved Serious Drama draped in horror tropes, which mainstream audiences have no time for and reject, and the MCU-like series of middling zeitgeisty pastimes of your Conjuring and Purge franchises, which make enough profit then disappear into thin air.
Enter Jordan Peele. A savant of the other genre perennially expected to transcend our postmodern anxieties, he made his name by lending certifiable mainstream appeal to a kind of weird, academic, highly political comedy that would once have had network executives tugging at their collars. His and Keegan-Michael Key’s success is unlikely, but self-evident; Key and Peele ended its highly successful run in 2015 — ages ago in internet years — and countless GIFs and clips of it continue to be passed around to this day. Peele’s subsequent segue into horror auteurism was met with some bafflement originally, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense; he was merely hopping from one frozen wellspring to another.
Now at two unprecedented genre hits out of two, he’s been compared to Hitchcock more times than can possibly be healthy for one’s psyche, but the comparison is mostly unfounded — Hitchcock was a “visceral” director, the grandfather of all jump-scare-fests, and Peele’s filmmaking, like his comedy, is not “visceral,” at least not primarily. Where even “respectable” horror directors like David Robert Mitchell and Jennifer Kent rely on classical tension/shock schemes that attempt to reach beyond the intellect, Peele is interested in frightening you through your brain activity.
Consider the very setup of Us: a nuclear family stalked by copies of themselves, equal to them in strength and intelligence, intent on killing them. One of the ways we distance ourselves from horror movies and filter their primal appeal is by analyzing the characters’ behavior — if they do anything we deem “stupid,” we can tell ourselves what we’re seeing is not something we’d go through ourselves, and therefore, is not scary. Most modern horror, informed by that pattern of audience response, will then have the characters follow strict, warlike survival protocols, just to get that part out of the way. Us, conversely, emphasizes the characters’ erratic behavior, carefully unraveling their effort to stay together and safe in plausible yet still frustrating ways: the son backs away into an isolated corner, the daughter steps on the gas in a vain attempt at a kill, the mother runs impulsively into the house to get the car keys.
Why invite audience derision like that? As it happens, Us is not just a survival story. It’s a family story, and not the kind of fraught, fucked-up family story the premise might invite either — Mom loves her kids, Mom and Dad are happy together, and the whole pack is pretty functional on the whole. Analysis is encouraged because the horror is in the analysis: if you put yourself in the family’s shoes, you’ll find that they’re doing about as well as they could. They’re not the Tethered; they haven’t been methodically practicing for that scenario and developing highly efficient systems of communication for years. And, you know what? Neither has your family. Even among those who love each other most in the world, human communication is desperately fragile, desperately limited, and it’s impossible to be 100% selfless. The Wilsons aren’t our twisted mirror image like the Grahams in Hereditary. They’re simply us. That’s the kicker.
There we have just one example of how Peele pulls the discourse around him — he practically dares you to open Twitter at the end and go, “I would NEVER have done what Lupita did in that one scene.” He’s acutely, startlingly aware of the way people are going to respond to his work, even more so now that a thousand thinkpieces have been written about Get Out. It’s what allows him to, despite his courtship of a mode of delayed-action, subcutaneous fright more common in indie/arthouse horror, pack enough mainstream appeal into his films to reach a wider audience than virtually any other “visionary director” currently working in any genre. His style has a kind of Hollywood-shredding formal directness to it, like he’s easing you in with the crisp, TV-esque gloss of a studio action film so you’ll more easily indulge him as he crushes that gloss between his fingers with his intricate dramaturgy, his cascading references, his melancholy moral landscapes. Indeed, Us is his second film to borrow as much from blockbuster action tropes as from the list of classic horror references he gave Nyong’o in advance of the shoot: no matter how big the Tethered conspiracy gets, the family’s struggle to survive remains grounded and linear and rife with comic relief, just as Get Out’s white liberal nightmare was narrowed down and made palatable by a man’s immediate task of leaving the premises. In both films, Peele has avoided the diminishing returns endemic to the horror feature by crafting full-blown thrill rides in which mounting creepiness prevails over outright dread, until it dramatically doesn’t. (For the second time, there’s a downside: the ugly strings and sharp noises of Michael Abels’ score still feel distractingly instructional, if less so than in Get Out.)
But to be clear, Us is not Get Out — and, once again, Peele has fun with our misplaced expectations. He knows that, by centering blackness, even if his primary intention may be just a representational change of pace (which he achieves marvelously, continuing Get Out’s radical rendering of American whiteness into a creepy, perilous Other), he’s fating Us to be seen as a “black” film and inspire race/class readings. And so he constructs what can be easily seen as a cute, clean metaphor for class tensions between black Americans (something something Kamala Harris), or for the US’s history of imperialism (something something Mozambique, something something Venezuela) — right before pulling the rug out from under either reading with a deeply disturbing final twist that blurs the optics completely.
That comparative thorniness also helps explain why, ultimately, Us is less successful as a horror blockbuster than Get Out. This time, Peele’s thesis, to the extent he has one, is not a focused, timely distillation of a specific social problem he can interweave perfectly with the viewing experience, folding satisfying satirical insights into each new thrill. Instead, his choices, both narrative — the middle-class family out of their element; the tension between individualism and collectivism; the protagonist awaiting a reckoning; many more things I can’t spoil — and aesthetic — hellscapes that look like abandoned shopping malls; creepy jumpsuits reminiscent of prison uniforms; red, white and blue as apocalyptic colors; the very title — suggest a much wider thematic scope: he’s taking aim at a whole country. And he has so much to say about it that his ideas brim over, subtext snuffing out the text like sewer people rising from their underground dungeons. It’s no coincidence that the big climatic exposition dump, structurally identical to Get Out’s, feels so much more inelegant here: because the dramatic strand it addresses is just one among so many, it’s not really satisfying and its didacticism doesn’t feel earned. K. Austin Collins isn’t wrong when he asks that you “don’t overthink it” — to think about Us, from its opening titles to its deceptive ending, is to slip into a downward spiral that ends with you leaving the theater less scared of the Tethered than obsessed with them.
And yet, for as much as it fails to provide the kind of collective catharsis Get Out devised for a hungry America, I think Us may prove to have even more staying power. It’s a deeply despondent movie, one uninterested in catharsis of any sort for either its political themes or its scary universal emotions. It’s frustrating by design, and more off-putting the more you think on it. But it’s also Jordan Peele proving his mettle as a vital new voice, capable of commanding attention with his every move; I’m not exaggerating when I say that Us serves up more indelible images (that one shot of the empty beach with the corpses and the string of people holding hands, my God) and unforgettable sequences (“Fuck tha Police” in full, yes, but also: the ballet montage!) than most filmmakers can hope to achieve in their whole careers. There are moments here, eagerly bolstered by the hefty $20 million budget, that seem destined to be every bit as iconic as anything in Get Out; it’s clear Jordan Peele knows pop horror sensibilities inside and out. The great contradiction of Us lies in how it appeals masterfully to those sensibilities while offering an alienating answer to their bottomlessness: you wanna shit bricks? Read some Bradbury. Think harder. Watch again. Then maybe we’ll see, or maybe you’ll give up.
It’s a ridiculously gutsy gamble — and the fact that it’s paying off, the fact that Us racked up historical amounts of money and took pop culture by storm, suggests something else: Peele understands his audience so well because he has so much faith in it. His cinema is refreshing, in the end, because it doesn’t compromise on its richness and its intellectualism; it merely knows how to work the crowd.
In that sense, Peele really might possess the raw showmanship of a new Hitchcock of sorts. And in Us, given the resources to make a grand statement about what he intends to do with that rare talent, he takes his narrative into his own hands: this is the sophomore movie he wanted to make, rather than the one he was expected to make as a horror mastermind or a woke king or the future of American cinema. What do we want out of horror movies? Like any genius, he makes an impossible question simple — we want whatever Jordan Peele is serving.