Dir. and Written by - Jordan Peele
Prod. by - Jason Blum,
Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Director of Photography -
Edited by -
Production Design -
Ruth De Jong
Ruth De Jong
Run Time: 116 mins.
(***** on a scale of 1-5)
In the 1973 adventure classic ENTER THE DRAGON, as the sampan filled with the world’s greatest martial artists chugs towards the tournament on Han’s private island, self-inflated bad-ass Parsons (portrayed by Australian Shotokan black belt legend Peter Archer) flexes and shows off a few fight moves in front of Lee (Bruce Lee) in an attempt to goad Lee’s ego into “throwing down” right then and there on the deck of the craft in order to find out “straight-up and right now” who’s the more bad-assed. Then, in what remains ironically one of the most famous scenes in all of action movie history, Lee explains to Parsons “The Art of Fighting Without Fighting”.
He convinces Parsons that fistifcuffing on the deck of the ship perhaps isn’t the best thing to do. So, he suggest they take a small lifeboat-like dingy to the shore of a nearby island. Parsons agrees and steps down into the dingy, then Lee untethers the craft from the ship, watches Parsons float away into the distance, then goes about his earlier business. Hence “The Art of Fighting Without Fighting” is when one puts his or her ego in check long enough to realize that it isn't always the most obvious first reaction action which is the most effective. The last time we used that analogy for a film was when describing Robert Zemeckis’ brilliant 2000 mystery-cum-ghost story WHAT LIES BENEATH to a friend as “The Art of Doing Hitchcock Without Doing Hitchcock”.
In that film by putting the “I know my Hitchcock as much as anyone else, and I’ll prove it” part of his ego in check, and by not doing the “Brian DePalma thing” of specifically patterning shots after frames from earlier Hitch thrillers, but rather taking the soul of Hitchcock and “implanting” it within an entirely new 21st century filmic body, Zemeckis’ WHAT LIES BENEATH ironically became the most faithful Hitchcock homage in years. Now, whew!, all of that to explain how in similar fashion Jordan Peele, after the stunning success of his 2017 horror / satire GET OUT, had a lot to prove on his sophomore outing. But instead of succumbing to the ever-so-tempting “Look, Ma, I’m directing!” instinct, with the gleefully creepy US he puts his ego on hold, crafts a multi-layered chiller diller, and gives us one of the best “evil doppelgänger” yarns ever in the history of a genre visited before by the likes of Harlan Ellison, Rod Serling and other such titans of weird fiction.
Sorry for the few run-on sentences there. But at the same time not so sorry as this one's got us stoked because quite simply you can’t be a hack and keep company with folks like Ellison and Serling. And while not trying to compete with or imitate any such literary or filmic icon, Peele ironically - not unlike Lee and Zemeckis - more than holds his own with them, and at times (forgive the sacrilege) might even excel past them with a clever piece of cinema grimoire both familiar and startlingly unique for the era in which, and for which, it was created.
US doesn’t seek to invent a new genre. Nor does it seek to ape one down to the letter either. Rather it sets out to re-introduce a classic (if more obscure) sub-genre to a younger audience in modern fashion - thus turning said younger audience into fans of the original material, … which it’s kinda like and not like at the same time. You follow? Yeah, we know it's a little weird sounding. But it makes sense. In fact in that regard US the film is in some respects a lot like the doppelgängers who show up to torment their physically (and quite possibly psychologically) twin family.
This is a no spoilers review, so we won’t allude to anything you haven’t already surmised from the trailers, clips, TV spots or cast interviews on various talk shows. US opens in 1986 where, after wandering away from her family during a beach trip to Santa Cruz, 10 yr. old Adelaide Thomas finds her way into a carnival’s hall of mirrors, and is traumatized by meeting a horrific exact living double of herself. Unable to verbalize the terror, she, not unlike an assault victim, silently carries the trauma into adulthood - where her present day self is portrayed by 12 YEARS A SLAVE and BLACK PANTHER‘s Lupita Nyong‘o.
Adelaide has managed to keep her psychological / emotional demons at bay and away from her family for her entire adult life. That is until during a new trip to the same beachside community the unspeakable springs to life four times more terrifying than before as not only her evil double returns as an adult, but so do those of her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) - all of them for some unknown reason violently intent on taking the places of the real family. And from this point the TWILIGHT ZONE-ish version of the $54,000 DOLLAR QUESTION becomes “Are the evil doppelgängers of supernatural origin, strange clone-like physical origin, are they from another parallel dimension, or (like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel) a product of one or more of the family members’ inner psyches projecting themselves into our reality in corporeal form?”.
US interestingly answers that question for the audience halfway through the film then makes an intriguing - if not entirely successful - course change into becoming another kind of film during it’s second half which raises an entirely new set of questions for the audience to brain tease it's way through. As for that second half we say “If not entirely successful” because (for our money anyway) in such a horror thriller very often less is much more as the questions and freakish answers which each individual audience member comes up with in the cinema of their own minds is usually infinitely more fascinating and terrifying than anything a filmmaker can explain or physically show. This isn’t always a bad thing. Think of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS - where the first half is a straight up horror film, and the second half becomes an adventure story, and both work like gangbusters.
But also consider Steven Spielberg’s earlier 1971 tv movie DUEL - released outside the U.S. as a feature film where in some versions you actually see a driver’s hands, feet, etc. in the cab of the marauding 18 wheeler hell-bent on turning motorist Dennis Weaver into canned road kill. This as opposed to the original tv version where we never saw inside the cab, and never knew if there was a madman behind the wheel or if the vehicle was powered by some supernatural Theodore Sturgeon or Stephen King-like entity possessing it and turning it into a killing machine on wheels. By the way, Spielberg has gone on the record stating that he himself prefers the version of DUEL where you don't see inside the cab.
Peele’s explanation for what's going on (well, kind of a partial explanation, anyway) is freakishly intriguing to be sure, but it’s nowhere near as fever dream scary as when we have no idea - or even a guess - whatsoever, and we as an audience are hopelessly trapped in what Rod Serling’s opening TWILIGHT ZONE narration famously described as that land of the imagination “between light and shadow”, “between science and superstition” and “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge”. That’s a damned scary place, but an intellectually fascinating one at the same time. And writer / director Peele seldom misses a beat in wringing every single drop of sweat from our pores, and keeping every single electro pop of brain energy a’burnin’ in our noggins as we try to figure out this wild cinematic world he’s plopped us smack dab down into the middle of. It's helluva fun ride.
The TWILIGHT ZONE analogy is entirely apropos as, not only will Peele’s new re-imagining of Serling’s venerable series begin its run on CBS’ All Access steaming service in a few weeks. But because Peele has also acknowledged how the original 1960 TZ episode “Mirror Image” (written by Serling, directed by John Brahm, and starring Vera Miles - the one where she encounters an exact double of herself in a bus station) was the primary inspiration for his film just as another TZ episode, Richard Matheson’s “Little Girl Lost”, was the creative first spark which brought Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST into existence.
Y'know, that thing where a number of scenes are reproduced from classic films (sometimes even down to costumes, camera angles and music) yet strung together into an entirely new film. Along those lines take a look and take note of DePalma’s “Odessa Steps” sequence as realized in THE UNTOUCHABLES, Uma Thurman’s yellow Bruce Lee GAME OF DEATH jumpsuit in KILL BILL, as well as the angle and editing of KILL BILL’s hospital sequence (lifted from Frankenheimer’s BLACK SUNDAY), the design of it’s “House Of Blue Leaves” battle climax setting (lifted from Sydney Pollack’s THE YAKUZA), and the very “slave to bounty hunter to vengeful hero” plot of 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED - a stringing together of the plots of the three 70s era Fred Williamson revisionist westerns THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (‘72), THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY (‘73) and BOSS NIGGER (‘75). For as much as we love DJANGO UNCHAINED, the fact is it's very much a combined "Reader's Digest" version of those three films with a hip 21st century attitude.
Make no mistake, US is definitely a genre fanboy’s thematic Cuisinart version of a wet dream. But it’s not a retread. And that’s a super-important and very noticeable difference. More like in the same way in which Peele’s earlier GET OUT was a modern day DNA transplant of THE STEPFORD WIVES, so is US the latest entry in the sci-fi / horror sub-genre of the age old evil doppelgänger yarn. And if it’s true that the most reworked story in cinema history is Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST - redressed and revisited as EMPIRE OF THE SUN, THE COLOR PURPLE, CLOCKERS, AN AMERICAN TAIL and more over the last century of film, then surely the doppelgänger tale, perhaps second only to the "paradox of time" story, is among the most revisited in the sci fi / horror realm.
|Fetching the Fetch: "How They Met Themselves" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti -|
watercolor version, c. 1860-64
In addition to TZ’s “Mirror Image” some of the most popular and surely memorable incarnations of the doppelgänger sub-genre include the original STAR TREK series’ “Mirror, Mirror” (the one with the evil Kirk and Spock with the goatee - remember that one?), one of the best of Irwin Allen’s original LOST IN SPACE episodes - 1967’s “The Anti-Matter Man” (where a rift in the timespace continuum causes an evil Robinson family and robot to slide through and battle the good ones), and one of the most gripping episodes of 80s era television period - genre or not: the 1985 debut episode of the revamped TWILIGHT ZONE series, “Shatterday”, based on a story by Harlan Ellison, starring Bruce Willis, and directed by Wes Craven.
|(Top to bottom) HOW THEY MET THEMSELVES |
THE TWILIGHT ZONE - "Mirror Image" (orig. airdate 2/26/60),
LOST IN SPACE - "The Anti-Matter Man" (orig. airdate 12/27/67),
STAR TREK - "Mirror, Mirror" (orig. airdate 10/6/67)
All of those stories - each damned clever and witty in their own right - aren’t rips of one another, but rather like the OLIVER TWIST reworkings are all to greater or lesser degree based upon the original Irish folk legends of the Fetch more than anything else. So, yes, Peele’s film does doff its cap to what came before. And, hell yes!, in parts it feels like a deliberate “Cinematic Easter Egg Hunt to End All Easter Egg Hunts”. For example in the very first scene / opening shot we notice four VHS video tapes strategically placed alongside an 80s era television set - three store bought tapes and one home recorded one. And if you’re familiar with the plots of the movies on the three store bought tapes it’ll give you a little heads-up as to some of US’s upcoming narrative elements.
If you’re also familiar with other 70s era films (those of Peele’s formative inspirational years) like the NIGHT STALKER tv movie sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD, DON’T LOOK NOW and Philip Kaufman’s remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, then there are additional specific scenes in Peele's film which will surely make you grin with a sense of “insider joke” familiarity every bit as much as they made us grin like big goofballs. So, yeah, Peele’s film is a horror film with something in it for everyone, especially the genre fan. But once again it acknowledges a love of these films - functions as a living stroll down horror memory lane (if you will) - without blatantly ripping off what it sees on the side of the road and trying to pass it off as it’s own. It acknowledges what came before but says, “Let’s take the DNA of that and not create a clone, but an entirely new being with it’s own voice and personality (it’s own soul if you will), but which very much remembers where it‘s DNA came from”. And, oh yeah, on the “horror” subject …
|Rolling Stone - February, 2019|
No "if"s, "and"s or "but"s, US is a bonafied horror film. In a January 2019 interview with Rolling Stone’s Peter Hiatt, writer / director Peele flat out acknowledged that after the “Is it a horror film or a thriller?” (as if one film can’t be both) “genre confusion” of GET OUT, what he wanted to do next was a no-holds-barred, flat out “’spill your soda’ scary” (his words, not our’s) horror tale. And that’s what we get.
US isn’t a perfect film. As mentioned earlier we found the first half more terrifyingly gripping than the second half (which is suspenseful). And even during that first half many of the scenes for our money run on a few extra beats too long. It’s as if Peele is so in love with the cleverness of his material in each scene he can’t bear to cut or lose any of it even for the sake of dramatic pacing. And as such there are a few lags in that first half because of it. At its best US plays like the crème of those lean and mean “one stab” / single-premise-with-multiple-permutations-and-possible-outcomes 70s era tv movies like THE NIGHT STALKER, BAD RONALD, DUEL, SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, THE NORLISS TAPES and THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET. And when you think about it part of what made those films so to-this-day memorable (and still scary) was their brevity.
US is great running at just under two hours. And it would have been even better had it come in closer to 95 or 100 minutes. Even those other 70s theatrical films like PETER PROUD and DON’T LOOK NOW - in which US is in obvious and understandable head-over-heels love - clock in at a shorter running time than Peele‘s. And part of their success is in how they don’t allow their premises to overstay their welcome. They dramatically know how to (as we used to say back in the day) “hit it then git it”. And US comes precariously close to forgetting that. As for the execution of it's other craftsman-like details, Peele's rollercoaster is a cinema textbook masterpiece.
The score by classical and contemporary composer & teacher Michael Abels is a freakish work of mad genius. It’s amalgam of chanting OMEN-like chorus, Afro-Cuban percussion and orchestra manages to simmer on the back burner of the audiences' memory long after exiting the theater. And the film's visual execution, concocted by Peele and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (IT FOLLOWS, SPLIT, GLASS), is eerily unnerving and endearingly playful at the same time.
The opening sequences in 1986 are filmed in almost CHARLIE BROWN / E.T. childhood-point-of-view fashion with the camera seldom rising above the height level of young Adelaide, and the adults mostly seen from the waist down until leaning over into the frame to converse with our young protagonist. It's both cute and creepy at the same time. Then later there’s (quite cleverly) hardly a scene where the members of the cast are filmed in the center of the frame in classic fashion. The most prominent “center of the frame” traditional visual moment is during the scene we see in the various trailers and tv spots - when the “alternate family” first appears at the end of the driveway dressed in red coveralls and holding hands.
|(L to R) Composer Michael Abels and |
Dir. of Photography Mike Gioulakis
In light of all of this, and especially after the film’s final reveal, we admit the stuff about the running time and scenes in the first half being a bit too long emerge as minor quibbles in what is hands down one of the best modern day horror films to come along in years.
As popular and well made as are the more recent slate of cinematic terror trips (films like INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, ANNABELLE, THE UNBORN, THE NUN, etc.), we’ve just never been as taken by them the way many others are because to us too many of them rely upon CGI trickery to create their nightmarish imagery. For us, in the same way in which watching actual stunt personnel doing actual feats of derring do as opposed to their obvious CGI counterparts doing the same, so do we believe that the film audience not only sees but feels the difference deep in their gut when freakish fever dream imagery is realized mostly in camera. There's a sense of unexplainable creepiness and dread in subconsciously knowing that actual physical reality is somehow being twisted right before our eyes. And this is part of the reason why films such as THE EXORCIST, the original THE OMEN and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and even many of Universal's horror hits of the early 1900s like DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN still somehow remain timeless today. It's not just nostalgia. They've somehow managed to bottle psychological lightning and preserve it via the physical cinematic arts. Peele's film does the same.
It's easy to forget how small scale some of the creepier TWILIGHT ZONE, OUTER LIMITS and NIGHT GALLERY episodes were. Most of them took place on maybe three sets at most, featured but a handful of actors (usually no more than four or five main speaking roles), and were shot with only one or two cameras usually locked into place, or at best on short-tracked dollies. But the ideas were so big the eye forgot to notice the lack of extravagances and uber technical razzle dazzle. The story, characters and director’s sense of style are what were king. And there was a Bruce Lee-like confidence in that alone for the film and filmmaker to feel secure in not having to ape or imitate what came before, or to slam the audience up against the wall in the cinematic / sensory equivalent of a gang rape in order to provoke an emotional response.
|At the US South by Southwest Festival premiere: (L to R) Writer / Director Jordan Peele and cast - |
Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss
While among the best of modern day horror, Jordan Peele’s US is at the same time a throwback to the days when “the idea” ruled. And in our present era where every other week rolls out yet another zombie or vampire tv series or flick - such to the point that many start to look and feel the same - it’s refreshing to see a genuinely creative and lovingly nostalgic spin on an age-old genre without resorting to simply ripping off what came before and claiming it as "the new cinematic thang". While faced with an impressive and daunting history of similarly themed films and series created by some of the legends of the genre, with US Jordan Peele has staked his own worthy claim as artist provocateur par excellence in “the Art of Terrifying An Audience With An Evil Doppelgänger Tale … Without Doing The Stereotypical Evil Doppelgänger tale”.
We think Bruce Lee would approve. ;)
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