The horror thriller, “Us,” has a mysterious prologue.
In 1986, a family is enjoying the fabled “Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk” amusement park in Santa Cruz in northern California. It’s especially famous for two of its rides.
One is a grand rollercoaster, called the “Giant Dipper,” which has a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean from the top of the first incline, and the other is the Looff Carousel, a wonderful, hand-carved merry-go-round from 1911. I’ve ridden both.
Writer-director Jordan Peele, who won an Academy Award last year for original screenplay for his movie, “Get Out,” has returned to the tense psychological underpinnings of that successful film.
In Peele’s new work, little Adelaide Thomas is on a vacation with her parents at the popular park. Holding a candied-apple as if it were a guiding beacon, she wanders off and goes into a funhouse. In the Hall Of Mirrors, she will be confronted by her doppelganger. Both we and Addie experience the spell of “the other.”
Young Adelaide is traumatized, but she manages to leave the funhouse and rejoins her parents. Talking about what happened is impossible. The parents visit a counselor.
Peele then jumps decades later to the present-day. The Wilsons – an adult Adelaide (played by a phenomenal Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (a very good Winston Duke), along with their two children, Zora and Jason – are vacationing in Santa Cruz, although Addie is nervous. She hasn’t forgotten 1986. Moody teenager Zora spends most of her time on her smartphone. Young Jason prefers to wear a strange mask, one of many references in “Us” to other cinematic horror stories.
Gabe is eager to impress their friends, the Tylers, with a boat he buys. At the beach, Jason wanders off and stares at a man with outstretched arms and bloody hands who’s wearing a red jumpsuit. As with his mother’s childhood experience, he keeps quiet about the encounter; however, he does draw a picture of what happened.
In the evening, four bizarre figures, clad in red jumpsuits and holding scissors, appear in the driveway of the Wilson’s beach house. It’s here that the chamber of horrors that is “Us” kicks into high gear. One driveway moment sent a shiver through my body.
Gabe demands that the strangers leave. Soon, the frightening foursome begins their attack and breaks into the house. During the first wave of mayhem, Gabe and Adelaide realize that the four intruders are exact doubles of their family. This is all I’m telling you.
“Us” is not your ordinary “something wicked this way comes” movie. The family vacation set-up is longer than necessary; however, it’s Peele’s world of horror, and you ride with his vision.
There are many touches of dread and also scenes of maniacal violence. For those familiar with Austrian director Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” – both his French-German version and his own English-language American remake – this is the madness territory you enter.
An hour into film, the tale starts to falter, but it soon picks up some steam, only to get slightly repetitive. Less would have been more. It’s too long (116-minutes) for what it delivers, but I wasn’t disappointed with what it delivered.
The closing half-hour of “Us” is not only beautiful, it’s also a bit bonkers. However, I give Peele credit for trying something as dense and complex as he has. Red jumpsuits equal a strange red menace and no one seems safe, certainly not in Santa Cruz.
Tunnels are referenced in a film-opening title card. One chamber’s corridor, with its wandering human population and rabbits seemingly part of a laboratory experiment, is essential to an understanding of Peele’s sociological message.
What occurs late in the movie, with Adelaide mentally telegraphing her own message to another character, can’t possibly surprise anybody who is a dedicated fan of horror films.
HOTEL MUMBAI: Here is a movie you experience, but cannot possibly enjoy in the traditional meaning of that word. I don’t know why it exists, what its purpose could possibly be. First-time director Anthony Maras and his co-screenwriter John Collee merely document an horrific event. They’ve chosen not to provide context. The heroic actions of some true-life characters are less developed than needed.
On November 26, 2008, ten well-armed armed gunmen, ordered by a faceless communicator, attacked a number of points in Mumbai, India, including hotels, restaurants, and an important train station. The movie, which lacks the epic scale required to tell this monumental story, focuses on the massacre at the opulent Taj Palace Hotel.
In “Hotel Mumbai,” you’re watching a human shooting gallery, as hundreds of innocents are murdered and wounded in the terrorist attack. Any attempted tension and concern for victims is dissipated by the sheer number of unknown people shot on-screen during this coordinated act of violence. You become inured to the slaughter.
At The Taj, Armie Hammer as a tourist and Dev Patel as a waiter, are the audience’s primary, albeit poorly developed, surrogates. Trapped and afraid, their situations are overwhelmed by the senseless nature of the relentless assault.
Blood flows, but Maras ignores a simple rule of filmmaking. It’s possible to show fear and create tension without wallowing in a grotesque march of brutal machine-gun fire. An action movie like this doesn’t honor the victims. Maras took the easy way out.
Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.