Towards the end of the “Key & Peele” series on Comedy Central, the sketches were becoming alarmingly dark. Many of the bits had a twisted premise that would develop in ways that were fitting for a horror movie and seemed removed from the earlier, lighter, oft-quoted skits that have made the show notable. It’s entirely fitting that writer/director Jordan Peele makes horror movies. The late George A. Romero and Wes Craven made films that were an extension of the social concerns and twisted senses of humor of their creators. So does Peele, whose “Us” is an impressive, shocking and gory follow-up to his instant-classic “Get Out.”
We meet Adelaide as a young girl in 1986, when a trip to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Amusement Park concludes with a traumatic incident in the Hall of Mirrors that haunts the remainder of her childhood. In present day, a grown Adelaide (played by Lupita Nyongo) is on a road trip with her husband (played by Winston Duke) and two children to Santa Cruz. While Adelaide objects, the family makes a fateful trip to carnival setting that scarred her youth and, almost immediately, bad things start to happen.
What does it all mean? Peele gives us lots of possibilities, leaving audiences breadcrumb trails of clues from the very first scene. Things to consider: The “monsters” identify themselves as “Americans,” the inciting incident takes place during the Reagan administration, the villains are all dressed in red and the title is one letter away from USA. “Us” could be Peele’s “They Live,” as it takes digs at Reagan’s brand of Americana.
“Us” is at its strongest when Peele leaves it to the audience to guess why the phenomena taking place. The third act, as eventful and skillfully done as it is, unveils an elaborate origin story and larger mythos that Peele should have kept close to the vest. While there lots of unanswered plot threads left dangling in the end, there’s too much over-explaining. Peele’s wild scenario works best when the audience is immersed in the take-it-or-leave-it set up. Less is more.
Once everything is revealed, the premise bears striking similarities to “The After Hours,” a classic episode from “The Twilight Zone.” There are lots of other film references (literally, as videocassette boxes in the opening shot provide foreshadowing), though this reminded me a great deal of “Funny Games” (either version); like that grueling home invasion art film, “Us” is sadistically violent, even for a horror film, and has a mean streak that will test the squirm endurance of some viewers (rabbit lovers should not even consider seeing this).
Not everything works, as sometimes individual shots or moments are stronger than whole scenes. Thinking about the movie on the drive home creates a mental checklist of inconsistencies and dropped subplots. I still have no idea who that “Jermiah 11:11” guy is or why Peele is so enamored with Luniz’s “I Got Five on It.” No matter, as Peele is out to create the look and feel of a vivid, punishing nightmare and succeeds. What Nyongo and co-star Elisabeth Moss pull off here is especially difficult and astonishing to witness. The welcome touches of humor give bursts of relief to an otherwise relentlessly intense film.
Finally, most of “Us” takes place at the actual Santa Cruz Boardwalk Amusement Park, which is one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a special place for me and was previously the setting for “The Lost Boys” (and even bad movies like “The Sting II”). Peele has now reclaimed the iconic location and made it a pavilion of nightmares. The next time I’m there, I suspect to see lots of “Us” cosplayers walking around. I won’t, however, be walking into the Hall of Mirrors.
Three and a Half Stars
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly