Blame Jordan Peele if you’re unable to sleep peacefully again. In “Us,” Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning horror satire, “Get Out,” the writer-producer-director has crafted a haunting scenario compelling audiences to identify with not only the victims but the forces of evil in American society. It’s a deliciously sinister fable targeting frauds, divisive politics and what happens when it comes time to atone for sins. It doesn’t get any more unnerving, folks.
Peele, the comedic-sketch-actor-turned-horror-auteur, caught lightning in a bottle with “Get Out.” The movie was universally praised for its biting social commentary on race relations. “Us” isn’t that movie. It’s a bigger endeavor with more horror, more gore, less satire, with ample laughs and some serious observations about identity and existence. It’s also scary as hell, inspired by classic horror films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Shining,” “The Exorcist,” and even “Jaws.” At first, the chills are mild, but they grow substantially, with significant assists via creepy, foreboding camera work courtesy of Mike Gioulakis (“It Follows”) and a haunting score by maestro Michael Abels (“Get Out”).
Peele builds the film behind a facade of horror movie clichés, such as a female protagonist clawing her way out of danger. Then he fortifies it with sly subtext that lifts it far beyond the typical home-invasion thriller.
It centers on the Wilson clan - Dad, Gabe (Winston Duke); Mom, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o); and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) - who are settling into their Santa Cruz vacation home when a creepy lookalike family dressed in red jumpsuits and carrying gold scissors forcefully enter the house. They’re on a mission to sever themselves from their human doubles.
A 1986 prologue depicts a young Adelaide (newcomer Madison Curry) having a horrible experience lost in a funhouse of mirrors at a seaside amusement park. The anxiety returns when she revisits the cursed beach for an outing with Gabe’s obnoxious rich friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, both making the most of small parts). She’s a rosé junkie and he’s waiting for “vodka-a-clock.” Doom follows them, too.
As the story evolves, Peele tightens his grip, shaking you out of your shoes, so much so he doesn’t know when to stop. He’s taken on so many big ideas he eventually paints himself into a corner from which the only exit is a … I’m not saying because I won’t ruin your fun. But when your heart rate returns to normal and the light of day sets in, the story is so full of holes it wilts under scrutiny.
To his benefit, Peele draws outstanding dual performances from all involved, especially Nyong’o, from whose perspective almost everything unfolds. Her characters are complete opposites (one a protective parent; the other a predator), and one of them sports a smirk that cuts right through you. An Oscar-winner for “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o single-handedly resuscitates a flagging movie. She’s a force, delivering a role as iconic as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in “Halloween” or Sissy Spacek’s bullied teen in “Carrie.”
At one point, Gabe, who provides most of the levity, shouts to the invaders: “If you wanna get crazy, we can get crazy.” And, boy is “Us” insane.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry.
(R for violence/terror, and language.)