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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: April 1, 2019

With ‘Us,’ Peele solidifies himself as a scary genius

Written by: Dennis Perkins

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Lupita Nyong’o in a scene from “Us,” written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.
Photo by Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures via AP

“Us,” is Jordan Peele’s second film as writer-director, and it confirms what fans of his first, “Get Out,” already knew, deep down in our horror-loving hearts — Peele is the new voice in American horror cinema.

Expanding his influence over the genre, along with his box office receipts (“Us” opened bigger than any original horror film ever), Peele has officially made the transition from comedy genius (“Key and Peele”) to scary genius, with his reboot of “The Twilight Zone” already winning plaudits in the TV world and plenty more frightening projects on the way.

(This is the point where I promise there will be no spoilers for “Us” in the coming article, since I am not a heartless, soulless monster who offhandedly ruins everyone else’s enjoyment.)

What I can say is that the film starts out as one, seemingly very simple (if terrifying) story, hints about even stranger and more sinister forces at the heart of the first, and then explodes into the sort of sky-high concept, home-run swing of a final shot that only a truly ambitious, brazenly daring genre picture can pull off.

Watch the “Us” trailer:

The acting from the stunning Lupita Nyong’o, her “Black Panther” co-star Winston Duke, and truly impressive child actors Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex and Madison Curry is uniformly outstanding. The home invasion/doppelganger premise (not a spoiler, since that’s all we know from the trailers) is directed by Peele with a devilishly smooth, wrenchingly visceral and witty panache. The film (shot by “It Follows” cinematographer Mike Gioulakis) is a masterpiece of tone, color and shadows, especially in how the family’s dark skin tones are, for once, properly lit in a studio film.

I was thrilled, amused (Duke’s dad-joke-loving dad is especially funny) and, as a horror aficionado/freak, delighted to see that Peele knows the horror genre so well that he can tinker and toy with its conventions while simultaneously scaring the pants off his audience.

Peele has made no secret of how his vision of horror has a wider scope than mere blood and monsters. There is blood in “Us” and monsters (depending on how you look at it), but Peele’s concerns are bigger, his cuts deeper. As Peele put it concerning the social elements in his two horror films to date, “(they) all deal with this human monster, this societal monster. And the villain is us.” On that score, “Us” is perhaps less fiendishly tight in its bloody satire than “Get Out,” its final third relying on too much talk to take the ever-expanding terror where he wants it to go. Still, that’s a quibble.

“Us” is a terrific, thought-provoking and deliciously fun horror flick that’s simply operating from a higher vantage point than 99 percent of horror I’ve ever seen. (And I have, as noted, seen ’em all.) There are a few horror movies that strike the same balance between visceral scares and the deeper, colder chill that comes from unpleasant enlightenment (on race, gender, class, imperialism, American exceptionalism and more.) Peele programmed some of them for a series he called “The Art of the Social Thriller” in New York prior to the release of “Get Out,” and as expected, he chose some of the best in this most rewarding of subgenres.

“Night of the Living Dead” (1968) might have inundated society with substandard zombie imitators over the past 50 years, but the late George Romero’s zombie classic is still the best at understanding how, no matter what the apocalypse at hand, it’s going to be humanity’s inability to overcome our own weaknesses that will ultimately doom us. It was inconceivable to have a black man (enduringly empathetic Duane Jones as Ben) as the capable, smart and courageous lead in a 1968 horror film, and if no one in the movie ever makes explicit reference to him being black, the still-shocking ending snaps the point home with one, sickening shot. Romero claims he simply cast Ben with the best actor available, but that ending – with echoes of then-airing civil rights movement TV footage of racist police beatings and snapping dogs – wouldn’t be as horrifying as it remains without Jones at the center. Romero knew what he was doing.

“Candyman” (1992) is, on one very effective level, a truly frightening boogeyman tale. Based on a Clive Barker story. It’s about a hook-handed urban legend come to terrifying life in the decaying and neglected housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green. Portrayed with customary complexity by imposing genre legend Tony Todd, the film’s central figure is hunted by a suburban white grad student (the very good Virginia Madsen), who plumbs the depths of America’s neglected heart, not to understand or assist, but in the tickly quest for forbidden knowledge (and professional advancement).

The film has its own blind spots about its own use of the black underclass for its horror setting (see the excellent black-horror documentary “Horror Noire” for more on that), but it, like “Us” digs into America’s economic and racial past to add an additional level of queasy, all-too-recognizable horror to its tale. Like Peele says, there’s nothing scarier than us.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

PMA Films
Starts Thursday, April 4th: “Apollo 11.” This stunning new documentary about the mission that first brought humanity to the moon draws from a newly discovered cache of glorious 65mm film from the NASA archives.

The Apohadion Theater
Wednesday, April 10th: “The Juniper Tree.” The Apohadion’s new cult film series continues with a newly restored screening of this 1990 Icelandic fable about a young woman (singer Björk, in her film debut) accused of witchcraft.

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