For a number of years, I had a recurring nightmare. I would be returning home, walking down the garden path leading to the back door. As I put the key in to unlock the glass door, I’d see a figure standing motionless in the kitchen near the worktop, her back to me. I’d know at once that the woman was me. Variations on this dream included walking downstairs and knowing that if I went into the living room, I’d see myself sitting there. This other me would always be perfectly still and silent and she filled me with terror.
I could never understand why seeing myself in dreams should be the stuff of nightmares until I watched Us on Sky movies. Jordan Peele gave me a horror flick that explained just why my evil doppelganger haunts my dreams, and where she comes from.
For you see, there are deep and empty tunnels in America, providing oversized warrens in which a completely hidden population of doppelgangers live – along with (appropriately for warrens) a load of rabbits in cages. Like my own nightmarish twin, these subterranean twins are silent, because they literally have no voice. Their job is to pantomime the actions of the population above ground, as those that live in the sunlight go about their lives. They do so whilst wandering around in their dismal and sparsely decorated tunnels, mimicking the movements of those up above in a strangely spasmodic and puppet-like fashion, like so many lunatics in a gigantic asylum. This is because they are actually clones, once created to control the human race by unknown scientists. The tunnel clones share a soul with their doubles above ground, excepting that they appear to have no free will.
Well, the weirdos in tunnels is what I found out towards the end of the film. Before that there was further incoherence (but not quite as incoherent as the clones in tunnels) which necessitated that I periodically shout out ‘why?’ and ‘what?’ and ‘yukk!’ at my telly screen, as Us descended further into madness.
Us is weird. There’s no getting around that. But Peele begins by prefacing the madness to come with flashbacks to horror films of yore, enough to fill this viewer with a comforting sense of deja vue. I’ve been there; seen that; this will be the sort of horror flick I can handle, thought I; that is until copious amounts of bloods splattered my screen.
Peele gave me a nice Kubrickian overhead shot of the Wilson family’s car, pootling along to their holiday destination at Santa Cruz, exactly as Jack Nicholson’s car had once wound its way to the Overlook Hotel, back in 1980 in The Shining. As the Wilson family sat on the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, Peele knicked gave us his version of Spielberg’s beach scene in Jaws, when the mother looks wildly around for her son and you can just feel that everything’s going pear shaped. At the same time a huge flock of seagulls swirl above the holidaymakers in front of Adelaide Wilson, in the exact same way they flock in The Birds. I could almost see Hitchcock walk past the camera in a ghostly cameo.
So, you’re not just in any horror territory, Peele seems to be saying. I’m in classic Horror mode here.
Us features the black Wilson family. There’s mom Adelaide (meaning noble), Dad Gabe (meaning God is my strength), son Jason (a healer/the cure), daughter Zora (the dawn.) When it comes to films like Us you look up everything. Not that it’s of much help.
The Wilsons are kitted out with life’s ordinary middle-class luxuries – iPhones, the big car, the holiday home in Santa Cruz (inherited from a dead mother) and go on vacation to that home one summer, whereupon it’s almost instantly invaded by a bunch of psychotic murderers. The title for that film should be Them, or The Others (already taken I know) or Invaders from Underneath the Earth!. But the psycho mob are the uneducated, grunting, disturbing aforementioned clones of the Wilson family – ‘It’s us!’, the son Jason whispers, when confronted with the alternate Wilson family in the living room.
Peele tells me that if a black character appears in the overwhelmingly white horror movies, then you know he’s expendable, or a sort of cultural add-on. Here the Wilsons are to the fore. A likeable, normal family in control of their comfortable life. They are totally relatable. Their friends (the white Tylers) are, on the other hand, slightly unhinged, slightly menacing, mostly drunk and wholly jaded with each other and their lives, despite being wealthier than the Wilsons. They’re also in possession of irritating twin daughters about to meet a gruesome death (again, hello Shining.)
The cloned Wilsons first appear in the real Wilson’s holiday home driveway, at night, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the priest standing outside the possessed girl’s house in The Exorcist. Not that I’ve seen, or ever will see The Exorcist – I just know my iconic movie scenes. I tell a lie. I’ve seen roughly 20 minutes of The Exorcist. Long ago and far, far away, I once tried watching it at the cinema. I knew this was a mistake from the get-go. A friend had persuaded me to go. Twenty minutes in and I walked out (having spent most of that time with my hands over my ears and my eyes shut) or, more accurately, stumbled out past several disgruntled movie goers. The friend was horrified (appropriately) at this publicly uncool behaviour.
The Wilson clones are clad in identical red overalls, like prison or chain gang uniforms. They wear leather, finger-less gloves and carry large gold scissors. These scissors are probably symbols of the fact that they’re going to cut their ties to the ‘real’ Wilsons. Mommy clone carries one shackle and chain, reminiscent of slavery. The alternate Jason Wilson wears a white sort of cloth hangman’s mask, in place of the real Jason’s plastic monster/animal mask. The alternate Zora Wilson behaves like a girl possessed by demons (again a la Exorcist.) Daddy Wilson is a growling, grunting bear and Mommy Wilson looks like a curly haired black servant from a 1930s film or a sort of living golliwog doll. So, whilst Peele denies that Us is about Race, at that point it probably is about Race.
But then it can’t be. The nice, normal black family are terrorised by a backwards, monstrous black family. The Wilsons then run to a white family for help. This is in direct contrast to Get Out, Peele’s first horror film, in which the well off, politically liberal whites are to be avoided at all costs. In Us everybody’s the same. Everyone is in danger regardless of skin colour.
I’m really late to the Us interpretation party. The internet is awash (rather like Us is awash with blood – double yukk) with explanation theories, as to what Peele, in choosing the horror genre vehicle, is really saying about society, social identity and racial tensions. Moreover, when you know the twist reveal, you’re compelled to watch the film again, just to catch the clear and present clues that tell you not all is as it seems.
So, I forced myself to watch Us a second time (eyes shut for the bloody scenes) just to track the evidence that pointed towards mom Adelaide being one of the clones all along, and that her murderous clone (known as Red) is the real Adelaide. This revelation goes some way to explaining the loony-ness of the cloned red army, but not all of it.
The young child, that is the real Adelaide, wears a Thriller t-shirt as she walks into the hall of mirrors on the beach, where she will be abducted by clone Red. Now, any sane person/child would never enter a hall of mirrors alone. The first rule in avoiding all things horrific, should you be unfortunate enough to be a character in a horror film, is to avoid mirrors at all costs. Suitably for the genre, Us is teeming with mirrors: Adelaide’s mirror image (or is it?) as she walks through the hall of mirrors (‘find yourself’ the attraction’s sign literally declares.) Clone mom Adelaide’s reflection in a window, as she relays her fears about being on the beach holiday to her husband. Daughter Zora staring into the bathroom mirror, inspecting her own image closely. If you’ve ever intentionally stared at yourself in a mirror for a long time, without moving, you’ll know the uneasy feeling that grows the longer you stare into your own eyes. The feeling that the person looking back isn’t you, and isn’t she beginning to look slightly malicious? And isn’t there a possibility that your mirror twin might just begin to move of its own accord.
Because of the Thriller t-shirt, I bothered to watch the Thriller video, to find Jackson in a red leather jacket and red trousers dancing around in zombified fashion. Jackson also famously wore one glove. This explains the red overalls and gloves and possibly the weird clone movements. The Hands across America advert, at the beginning of the film, also features basic drawings of red people linking hands (I’m old enough to remember Hands across America.) These are among the real Adelaide’s last memories before she’s imprisoned down below. When she later orchestrates a clone uprising as Red, these memories produce her overall’d, zombie-like red army, holding hands across the country in a decidedly creepy and not at all joyous or charitable fashion. Like my own dream clone this clone chain remains eerily silent and still. Dad Wilson, when confronted with the clone chain later in the movie, asks whether the hand holding clones could be some form of ‘fucked up performance art.’
This illustrates what’s so curiously enjoyable about Us – it’s occasionally funny. We are repeatedly given what amounts to grotesque slapstick moments (Zora whacking a clone Tyler twin over the head with a golf club) as the violence gets going, along with comedic familial moments, even at the points of extreme terror. One such moment occurs when the Wilson family discuss who should drive the Tyler’s car, when they’re escaping the clones. This discussion amounts to an argument as to which family member has the highest ‘kill count.’ ‘Well, I killed myself and Josh,’ Daddy Wilson whines, in exactly the manner of a completely ordinary family argument.
But what about real Adelaide’s explanation of the clones as an experiment to control the human race – previously echoed in Zora’s comment that the government uses fluoride in the water to control our minds – a comment that is considered laughable by the rest of the family. How would clone control even work? Clone Adelaide managed to get out of her tunnel via an escalator – what stopped the rest of the clones getting out years ago, if it was that easy? Many more people than Adelaide must have gone into that hall of mirrors, their clones following their paths. Should we then ask, how many more people above ground are actually clones, who managed to escape a hellish life, and remain terrified of being found out?
Of course, you could say that in the West (Us is also the US) we’re pretty much all clones anyway. Moulded after birth by a society that gives one style of education; access to clothes whose fashion is dictated for us; experiencing roughly the same popular culture; desiring the same goods, generated by consumerist advertising; working the daily grind like so many identical worker bees. Often feeling as lost and terrified as Peele’s clones.
Peele’s clones are underground. Lost and hidden. Denied the light and any meaning to their lives. They live impoverished, unequal lives and yet they look just like us. So, the deprived in any land are just like us, sharing the same human soul, but denied the same opportunities in life. There but for the grace of God go us/the US.
Despite Peele’s many ‘nods’ to horror directors that came before him, he’s an example of yet another artist who owes a TREMENDOUS debt to that shy, stammering, child-obsessed Victorian Oxford Don, aka Lewis Carroll. You can never overestimate the impact of the Alice books on popular culture. For there goes young Adelaide, wandering into a hall filled with looking glasses. And through a looking glass she goes, this time against her will, and we jump straight to a white rabbit. And you know that white rabbits live far underground in a crazy, nonsensical alternate universe. The clones are all mad there. They’re mad. We’re mad.
And where Alice followed her white rabbit, falling down a hole that became a long, long tunnel; the adult clone Adelaide runs back into the looking glass house, freeing a white rabbit as she does so, and then descends down and down via a maze of tunnels, stone stairs and that escalator, to finally confront her looking glass image:
‘Who are you? said the caterpillar.
‘I-I hardly know sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ said the caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’
‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid Sir, said Adelaide, ‘because I am not myself you see. I’m a clone.’
Fathoming Us as anything other than a curiously enjoyable shock-comic horror will no doubt keep the internet occupied for years. For the most part, I’m happy to remain clueless.
‘Tut, tut, child!’ said the Duchess. ‘Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.’