11:33am PT by Richard Newby
The Films That Inspired Jordan Peele's 'Us'
On Christmas, Jordan Peele brought a chill to our holiday celebrations with the release of the trailer for his latest horror movie, Us. The Blumhouse production is Peele’s second feature following his Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) and has been shrouded in secrecy ever since it was announced in May. While the film’s logline suggested a home invasion film in the vein of Ils (2006) and The Strangers (2008), the trailer reveals a horror event of a much more uncanny variety. Peele has said that the film will be significantly different from Get Out, and if the former film fits under the term “social thriller,” then this one will fully embrace horror, complete with masks, monsters and a supernatural element. The film, which stars Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, centers on a family vacationing at a beach house when their trip turns sinister as mysterious visitors arrive in the night, visitors who look just like them.
One of the things about Peele, a longtime horror fan, that makes him such an engaging filmmaker is that he’s made no secret about the films that have influenced him. His horror knowledge and fanboyish enthusiasm for the genre can be seen all over he and Keegan-Michael Key’s sketch comedy series Key & Peele, as well his first film. A great deal of the success of Get Out was how it twisted a number of familiar horror concepts and presented them through a new lens, taking elements that had served as the basis of so many horror movies centered around white characters and exploring them through blackness and contemporary America. Among the films that found their way into the DNA of Get Out are Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Stepford Wives (1975) and Scream (1996). It’s clear how these films impacted both the central mystery at the heart of Get Out, as well as the modernity in which the protagonists are aware of the bad decisions characters in horror movies so often make. For Us, the influences are just as significant, though tinged with an even darker edge.
To prepare his leading lady, Lupita Nyong’o, for Us, Peele assigned the actress a list of films to watch in order to create, as he told Entertainment Weekly, “a shared language.” These films included: The Birds (1963), The Shining (1980), Dead Again (1991), Funny Games (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Martyrs (2008), Let the Right One In (2008), The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014). In making this list public, Peele also creates an opportunity for audience members to seek out these films and also be a part of this shared language. Some of these films’ influences are readily apparent in the trailer. A family traveling to an isolated location only to find the supernatural, along with a parent giving into the dark side of the themselves, is reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games explores what happens when strangers prey upon an unsuspecting family. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows centers on an evil that was inescapable, something the trailer suggests with doppelgangers who act and think like our protagonists do. And the imagery of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, particularly its first act, is all over a particularly chilling moment featuring a grinning Nyong’o.
As apparent as some of these influences may be, expect others to crop up in unexpected ways. Peele has cited Jaws (1975) as an influence on Get Out, and while Spielberg’s film seems like a far cry from anything happening in Peele’s film, the filmmaker said that the shark taught him that what is unseen is often more frightening than what is. Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again may seem like a left-field choice, but its story of a woman with missing memories may play significantly on Us’ central mystery and apparent flashback scenes. Similarly, Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In may have less of a conceptual influence and more of an aesthetic one. Peele has given us puzzle pieces, but it’s unlikely they’ll come together in quite the way we expect when the film is released. But simply watching these films and considering their unique impacts, as well as what they had to say about us as a society during the time they were released, is rewarding in a way that highlights the scavenger hunt component of modern horror filmmaking and fandom.
What’s interesting about Peele’s list of films is that it doesn’t include movies that could be strictly defined as doppelganger films. Though just because they aren’t mentioned doesn’t mean that they won’t have an impact, either by way of Peele’s intentions or audience interpretation. The first doppelganger story that comes to mind after viewing the Us trailer several times isn’t a movie, but Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” in which a man’s antagonistic relationship with his double that began during his childhood results in madness and eventual death by suicide. It’s worth noting that the surname of family at the center of Us is Wilson, which is undoubtedly a reference to Poe. On the film side of things, The Man with My Face (1951), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), The Double (2013) and Enemy (2013) all dealt with doppelgangers across various genres, though none to the degree of horror it seems Peele is going for. Perhaps the most notable modern use of a doppelganger in contemporary horror is the Australian film Lake Mungo (2008), which plays with the urban legend, to startling effect, that a doppelganger is a precursor of death.
While images of doubles have been intermittently utilized in horror movies from body snatchers to specters, there’s a visceral quality to which Peele seems to be tackling the subject matter in Us. Like Poe’s William Wilson, the Wilson family in Us seem to be battling against living and breathing versions of themselves with what will surely be ruinous results. Horror is so often founded on the duality of man, but we’re expecting Peele to throw more than a few curveballs that will undoubtedly make a major statement about who we are as people in 2019.