Jordan Peele’s second feature film has been a critical and commercial success, raking in ticket sales and positive reviews as it plays on deep-set fears surrounding identity and duality. Us also proudly wears its influences on its sleeve, opening with a shot of a TV set surrounded by video cassettes, and often paying homage to genre classics through subtle moments of cinematography. It’s a horror nerd’s buffet. I’d like to take a chance to dive headfirst into some of this spooky hit’s spiritual predecessors, and create a viewing list for those who–like myself–still can’t get enough.
An acronym for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers,” this B-movie gem follows the mayhem that ensues as people-eating mutants rise up from the sewers of New York City. It has gross, rubbery practical effects, a great synthesizer score, and almost nothing resembling a coherent plot. This means it fits perfectly into the category of “so bad, it’s good” ‘80s horror. Surprise–it’s one of the VHS tapes featured on the shelf in the beginning of Us, and for good reason, as both films feature antagonists that emerge from a mysterious society below the ground.
Funny Games (1997 and 2007)
Playing into the twin motif somewhat, Funny Games is actually two movies: the original 1997 Austrian film, and its shot-for-shot 2007 American remake, both from acclaimed director Michael Haneke. Funny Games is a tense and sadistic home invasion thriller that toes the line between Arthouse and Grindhouse, as a pair of eerily polite brothers wearing crisp white tennis outfits terrorize a vacationing family in their lake house. Overall, it’s nihilistic and jarringly violent, but carries subversive themes that make it comparable to the works of Yorgos Lanthimos, or Jordan Peele’s socially conscious horror.
Based on The Double by José Saramago, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a college professor who notices his exact doppelganger in the background of a movie. The two men later meet and begin to trade places, taking over each other’s lives. Enemy evokes the uncanny, dreamlike terror of seeing a copy of oneself, and builds uncomfortable, Lynchian tension up until its utterly surreal final scene. It’s a dense film that weaves a web of questions, none of which are easily untangled.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers sets its sights on a California town whose occupants are being killed and replaced with physically identical, yet emotionally void replicas, grown from huge alien pods. Despite its drive-in camp, the film wields surprisingly complex political themes, as it reflects not only anti-communist Cold War era fears of infiltration, but the anxiety surrounding the mindless iron fist of McCarthyism. On top of all that, it’s still a thoroughly effective horror movie, retaining its power to frighten after over sixty years.
Goodnight Mommy (2013)
This is a sparse, artful, and gut-churning horror film whose suspense ramps up gradually until it reaches a feverish, screaming pace. After a TV host returns home from plastic surgery with her head wrapped in bandages, her twin sons begin to question whether their mother is really their mother. Goodnight Mommy uses ideas of identity and the Jungian shadow alongside squirm-inducing gore to pull us to the edges of our seats and keep us there, and the finale contains a revelatory twist that almost demands a second viewing.
The Parent Trap (1998)
Hear me out on this. The Parent Trap is a horror movie. Imagine living your whole life with a double somewhere out there in the world, and never knowing until the two of you met through a chance encounter. Then imagine finding out that your child was an entirely different person, and that the two had switched as part of a complicated plot to manipulate your romantic life. There is an underlying existential terror to it all. In reality, this family-friendly comedy touches on some pretty unsettling stuff.
Throughout Us, the audience is asked to confront a monster that wears our own faces, not just as individuals but as a society. When Lupita Nyong’o’s character asks her doppelganger “what are you?” she replies, “we’re Americans.” In considering some of the films that laid the groundwork for this moment, we can start to trace a history of self-reflective horror, and by looking at our fears, maybe learn more about ourselves.