In 1986, millions of Americans were persuaded to hold hands and form a human chain of brotherhood across the country to create a vision of unity, love, and compassion called Hands Across America. Creepy, no? It’s about time someone made a horror film about this.
Step forward, Jordan Peele, the Oscar-winning writer-director of Get Out, the first horror movie since The Exorcist to win a major Academy Award. With his second film, Us, Peele hews more to the horror side than the Oscar side. The new one has a bit of the satiric nature of Get Out, but it isn’t nearly as much fun, nor is its social subtext particularly deft. Moreover, those who were hoping that Peele would continue to offer mordant commentary on the state of race relations in America are going to be disappointed. For nearly an hour in the middle of the film, during endless scenes of chasing and screaming and killing of the kind we’ve all seen in dozens of stalker pictures and zombie epics, I kept looking at my watch and wondering when Peele would finally come to the point. When he did, it was sort of worth the wait, but only sort of.
After an onscreen notice that there are thousands of miles of empty tunnels beneath our feet in the United States, a prologue takes place in 1986, when a little girl wanders away from her dad at a carnival in Santa Cruz and into a fun house on the beach, where the weird doings begin. In the present day, that girl is Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), a more or less stable wife and mom who is nevertheless a little touchy about beaches and fun houses. On vacation with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex), and daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), she freaks out when Jason disappears for a few minutes in the vicinity of the same fun house, triggering memories of that 15-minute period in 1986 when she was separated from her family. Yet the experience of some friends who have a home nearby (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are the parents of teen daughters) suggests the scares endured by the first family aren’t unique. Soon all of these people are being confronted by their psychotic exact doubles, clad in red jumpsuits and brandishing scissors.
Cue carnage, with all the usual horror-flick clichés. Person A is just about to kill the defenseless Person B, but . . . hurrah, Person C has, unseen by the audience until the last second, sneaked up behind A to cosh A in the skull. Michael Abels’s intense score does much of the work here, if the theater plays it loud enough, but there’s no getting around the triteness of this home-invasion stuff. Oh yeah, I said to myself, this is why I hardly ever bother with horror films any more. Peele would probably have been wiser to tighten things up and make this story into a one-hour episode of The Twilight Zone, the latest reboot of which he is producing for CBS’s streaming service.
Peele seems to have the same kind of preoccupation with shaping a movie around a big final twist that fueled the rise, then fall, of M. Night Shyamalan (though he later rebounded). Us (or is it U.S.? Think about that) pushes toward a long expository scene in which one character simply explains everything that’s happened, but I didn’t find any of it particularly engaging despite Peele’s nudging us to attach some sociopolitical importance to developments. “We’re Americans!” insist the red-jumpsuit zombie types.
I don’t think Us has a great deal to say about America, or even about Hands Across America, but it does have something to say about another mid-’80s cultural milestone. Early in the film, there’s a glimpse of an old TV with a stack of VHS video cassettes. One of them is C.H.U.D. It continues to disappoint me that so many talented filmmakers seem to have so little interest in history, literature, the world, life, etc., that their principal inspiration remains the popcorn movies they liked when they were kids. I suppose that’s fine if you are willing to mentally wall off genre filmmaking from the more ambitious kind. Think of Us as C.H.U.D. with higher production values, and you’ll have an okay time.