Will Gompertz on horror movie Us directed by Get Out's Jordan Peele ★★★☆☆

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter


The jolly female film critic sitting one seat to my right in the cinema felt it only proper to manage expectations.

"I've seen the trailer," she said, "and it looks really frightening."

"Good," said the chap from a slasher movie website sitting between us.

"No," she said. "I don't like horror films. I'm going to scream. A lot."

image source, Alamy
image captionAfter the success of Get Out starring Daniel Kaluuya (above), Jordan Peele said he knew he had "a big task on his hands" with Us

We thanked her for the heads up, mentally prepared for her terrified outbursts (couldn't wait, TBH), and sat back to watch Us - Jordan Peele's follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut, Get Out, which was not only very good but also plenty scary in a Michael Haneke Funny Games sort of way.

Us starts on a summer's night in 1986 with a little girl called Adelaide and her parents enjoying themselves at a fun fair. They stop at a stall. Dad throws some balls, and wins his daughter a Michael Jackson Thriller T-shirt.

image source, Universal Pictures
image captionWho wins in the battle for survival? Adelaide or Red? (Lupita Nyong'o)

She pops it on and turns towards the camera leaving the audience in no doubt that the message it carries is ominous (because of the song's lyrics, not the recent doc Leaving Neverland).

She wanders off alone, walks past a creepy guy holding up a cardboard sign that reads Jeremiah 11:11, and ventures into a spooky looking Hall of Mirrors. It is as freaky as hell and that's before the lights go out. She runs for it, gets lost, sees what she thinks is a reflection of herself but isn't quite, and is never the same again. So far, so Scooby Doo.

Cut to the present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is now a mother with two kids - Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) - and a jovial husband called Gabe (Winston Duke) who is driving them to the coast for a holiday in Santa Cruz. As luck would have it, they're heading for exactly the same spot Adelaide had her something-nasty-in-the-woodshed experience all those years ago.


image source, Universal Pictures
image captionThe Wilson family discover the silhouettes of four figures of themselves standing on their driveway

Understandably, she is on edge from the moment they arrive at their stylish holiday home. Not so gung-ho Gabe, who is chuffed to bits with the ropey old speedboat he's scored for the family's amusement. They go down to the beach, hang out with some annoying friends, and then head home for a relaxing night of fun and games.

That's what Gabe and the kids think anyway. But Adelaide knows different. They are in a bad place. They should go. Now. But it's too late... a boiler-suited family of doppelgangers is standing outside and they haven't dropped by to borrow some sugar.

What follows is a beautifully shot, superbly acted, blood-soaked, slasher-horror movie with a nicely sharpened comic edge.

The themes of identity, duality, race, the American Dream (the clue is in the title), privilege and subjugation run through it just as they did in Get Out. Nothing wrong with that. But Us lacks the psychological tension that made Peele's first film such an outstanding piece of work.

image source, Universal Pictures
image captionThe meeting of masks: Jason (Evan Alex) teaches tricks to his doppelgänger Pluto

I suppose an appropriate metaphor would be to say it was like watching shadow boxing: you see loads of punches being thrown but none of them land.

I couldn't work out if the problem was with the editing or the directing, but too often when a scene was reaching its dramatic, horrific climax - the point at which you are thinking about raising a hand to cover your eyes - the tension dissolves like a sneeze that never materialises. It's like Gabe's boat, the timing is a bit off.

It doesn't stop it being a good movie, rich with visual allusions and biblical overtones, but it does fall short of being a great film. Not by much - just a second or two here and there - but enough to leave you a tad disappointed. Mind you, there was an upside. I left with my eardrums intact.

The lady to my right didn't scream. Not once. She didn't even emit so much as a tiny "eek". In fact, she was as quiet as a girl wearing a red boiler suit with mad staring eyes and a pair of scissors in her hands.

And she was totally silent - as you will see if you watch the trailer.

Some recent reviews by Will