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In new movie Us, Jordan Peele turns horror back to its original purpose

The director of Get Out delivers another smart horror heavy on allegory.

Every so often, a movie will present its audience with clues to unlock its secrets: a book, a T-shirt, a piece of music, a portentous sign above a doorway. In the case of Us, a blood-curdling and provocative film from satirist Jordan Peele (Get Out), it’s Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11: “Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”

Jeremiah is the prophet of doom, railing against society’s ills, warning that invaders are coming from over the hill to burn all that is corrupt. As one character quips near the beginning of Us: “I guess you don’t care about the end of the world.”

This is one of the many tricks, pebble trails, winking jokes and subterranean references swarming beneath Peele’s film. On the surface, though, it appears to conform to genre as a simple, sleek, visceral home-invasion horror.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

An unassuming middle-class family are on holiday at their summer house near Santa Cruz. There’s goofy patriarch Gabe (Winston Duke), kids Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) and mother Adelaide (an outstanding Lupita Nyong’o). One night, another family appears on their driveway wearing red jumpsuits and deranged expressions and clutching scissors. They look just like the clan trapped inside the house, but act far more primitively. Asked who they are, Adelaide’s double replies in a voice from the pit of hell: “We’re Americans.”

When confronted with grotesque, funhouse-mirror versions of ourselves, copies shorn of what we imagine to be our civilised edges, do we ignore them? No, says Peele. We beat them with golf clubs. Better to destroy the unhinged id roving the streets than listen to what it has to say.

As with Get Out, Peele’s Oscar-winning debut, I found myself admiring Us at an ironic remove. Instead of being gripped by the many fits of peril and bloodletting, I was more enthralled by its cleverness and shrewd conceits, searching for the hidden latches and codicils of this puzzle box.

Peele has turned horror back to its original purpose: not bump-in-the-night tales of ghouls, but parables that, like the mirrors so central to Us, reflect reality. Fantasy is never just make-believe; rather, it is the most frightening aspects of the here and now heightened to a shattering scream.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Universal Pictures

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.