The local multiplex embedded in a sprawling shopping mall was busy. Not Christmas shopping levels of busy but still a milling mass of people moving not quite in sync with each other in an artificial world. Air-conditioned comfort and protection from the burning UV of the Australian sun is the bargain offered by Sydney’s many Westfield malls and in exchange you give up the unfeasibly large expanse of blue sky, that can’t geographically be bigger here than elsewhere but somehow is.
The cinema too was busy. Dumbo, Captain Marvel and the Lego Movie 2 pulling in families and lines of posters offering sequels along the corridors. Inside the theatre, the trailers offered upcoming horror movies: teens in danger or Steven King remakes. I’m not a fan of horror movies. I appreciate the genre and I love how it is often a source of risk and invention despite appearing to be simply repeating familiar tropes. I don’t like horror movies because the bad ones are dull and the good ones work their way into my head and give me the creeps. I resent being superstitious and that capacity of horror movies to make me worry about things that don’t exist disturbs me. Quite simply I dislike the power they have over me.
So I like horror best in small doses. I like a taste of it, circumscribed by the way horror overlaps with other genres (thrillers, fantasy and science-fiction). So I probably shouldn’t have gone to see Us.
Jordan Peele’s first film Get Out, was just about the right ratio for me. Undoubtedly scary and tense but also full of interesting ideas. The final premise was knowingly absurd and tapped into that rich seam of conspiratorial mythology of secret societies and grand sinister designs of powerful people.
Us has all of that and quite a lot more. There are no shortage of horror movie tropes in the film, indeed at a given moment the film plays along with standard styles of horror movie but only for awhile and then it moves on. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) is a mother haunted by a traumatic experience as child. A family vacation takes her and her family back to the popular beach where she once disappeared for 15 minutes. The ghostly supernatural atmosphere quickly shifts into danger that is more immediate and physical.
Flipping confidentially through sub-genres with overt nods to other scary films, the story uses familiar aspects of horror to twist expectations. The scale of events shifts through the course of the film. At times it steps into the conventions of folk tale and there’s an element of Neil Gaiman’s sense of the horrific-as-wonder to the story.
As with Get Out there is an explanation for events and unlike Get Out there is time spent exploring how and why the events depicted have come about. It’s not an explanation well grounded in reality but rather a set of disturbing what-ifs sketched out leaving a host of questions behind (and no, it’s not feasible to live off that specific diet, and no, I don’t think it matters were those clothes came from). The sinister conspiracy revealed in Get Out isn’t overtly connected with the events in Us but the two sinister schemes are aesthetically connected.
Gorey and violent but leavened with humour and plausible family dynamics, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is extraordinary but also well supported by Winston Duke (who gets the best dad jokes) and the two young actors playing their children. Far, far too creepy for me to say I ‘enjoyed’ this — I was a nervous wreck for most of it — but I desperately want to watch it again.