(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood or how classic Hollywood continues to influence modern filmmaking.)

Jordan Peele’s Get Out reinvigorated a horror landscape rife with jump scares and standard monsters. Horror features with political overtones have existed since the genre was created, but in the Blumhouse era, they were sometimes harder and subtler to find. Peele’s second feature, Us, similarly infuses the filmic and the societal in a way that’s just as fresh and unique as Get Out, while being even more cerebral. Where some movies easily lend themselves to classic film comparisons, Us uses them more as influences. Several times, I saw wisps of a classic film though the name escaped me. I’m eager to see what other references people catch while watching Us.

Us follows the Wilsons, a family spending a quiet vacation at their summer house in Santa Cruz. When a family arrives at the end of their driveway the Wilsons must confront their greatest fear: themselves.

This article contains major spoilers for Us.

Jordan Peele and the Twilight Zone (No, Not That One)

Considering Peele’s upcoming reboot of the classic CBS series, it’s not surprising that the Twilight Zone is a direct influence on Us. Peele himself has said he based much of the story on theclassic episode “Mirror Image” from 1960. In that episode, Vera Miles plays Millicent Barnes, a woman who discovers her own doppelgänger is stalking her. As the episode unfolds, it’s revealed that an alternate plane exists with copies of everyone. The doppelgänger’s  goal, then, is to remove the original in some form and inhabit their space.

“Mirror Image” posits an alternative universe, whereas Us introduces the idea that a subterranean world of doubles that exists in the millions of unused tunnels throughout America. Red (Lupita Nyong’o), the double of family matriarch Addie, seeks to take over the woman’s happy life and give the underground doubles a chance to live in the freedom and, presumed, happiness those above ground have exhibited.

Several Twilight Zone episodes have tackled the concept of individual freedoms at the expense of others like Us does. The famous 1960 episode “The After Hours” is also reminiscent of Us as it follows Marsha White (Anne Francis), who is revealed to be a department store mannequin who has gone over her allotted time in the real world. When she returns to the department store, it is a trick to get her back and allow another mannequin to go out. Us uses this to explore the nature of humanity. How those at the bottom could very well overthrow those at the top and how someone always suffers at the expense of others.

We’re Being Invaded!

The 1950s invasion films make up one of the more famous subgenres of film history. They tended to explore the dichotomy between science and military muscle, as well as questions of conformity and subversions. Us acts as its own invasion narrative, with a group of scientifically created underground dwellers confronting the individual with their own nature of conformity and, ultimately, pain and suffering they’ve unintentionally wrought on others. Until the twist is revealed, Addie’s only crime is that she has had a nice life while those underground haven’t. It isn’t until the audience discovers that Addie was really the copy and Red was the original Addie that her true intentions are presented as devious.

It’s easy to see shades of both the 1954 and 1978 iterations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the closest comparison with Us and the invasion narrative can be found in The War of the Worlds. As Lindsay Ellis details in her video essay on invasion narratives, H.G. Wells used the invasion of the aliens to look at the dominant party’s own culpability in profiting off the subjection of others, and this is exactly the case in Us. Addie, standing in for the audience, forces us to question what boundaries we’d cross if we’d spent our lives perpetually oppressed. Red’s actions are horrible, but considering the life she’s undergone – especially once the switch is revealed – creates empathy for the character.

Seeing Double

Us isn’t a movie about twins bound by blood, though it does hearken back to several classic films about them. In many cases, one twin is benevolent and kind while the other is dark and sociopathic. In the 1946 film noir The Dark Mirror, Olivia de Havilland plays a woman accused of murder who also has a twin sister. Which woman really did it? Bette Davis played twins twice, in both the 1946 film A Stolen Life and 1964’s Dead Ringer. These movies generally seek to show the duality of the female personality, giving audiences the madonna and the whore in one actress. In the case of Us, both Addie and Red are empathetic and evil, able to kill and have moments of respect for each other.

The New Steven Spielberg?

During one scene in Us, the audience sees Addie’s son Jason (Evan Alex) wearing a Jaws t-shirt and the Spielberg connections are instantly apparent. Like Spielberg, Peele has crafted two films about the American family and the dark secrets hidden within. Like Jaws’ Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), Nyong’o’s Addie is incredibly overprotective of her children and repelled by a specific location. Chief Brody has a fear of water, while for Addie it is Santa Cruz (and the funhouse, specifically) where she first encountered her double. A scene on the beach when Jason wanders off is nearly identical to the zoom-in shot of Brody during the first shark attack. There are similar comparisons worth making, especially when Winston Duke’s Gabe falls into the water after attacking his double, hearkening back to Jaws’ opening midnight swim.

There are also light commonalities to the Spielberg-produced 1980 family horror feature, Poltergeist. In that film, youngest child Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is perceived by the dead to be an angel, a coveted vessel hunted down in three films. Addie and Red are both called special, with the latter leading the group of “Tethered” clones to the aboveground world. The jury is still out on whether is Peele is “the new Spielberg,” but they certainly share some common interests.

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