Review – Horror and ConfUSion (“Us”)

After his phenomenal success with Get Out, everyone was looking at writer/director Jordan Peele to see what his next project would be because, let’s face it, it’s by your second movie that you are judged. Was his Get Out a fluke or a flash-in-the-pan, or is Peele the genuine article and possibly the next Spielberg? Well, let’s see.

Don’t ya just hate vacations? Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) sure does. Sure, she and her big lug-of-a-husband, Gabe (Winston Duke) have got a damn fine summer house by the river and they’re close to the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, but something’s not right. Her kids are fine with it: teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who is physically attached to her cellphone, and young, quiet Jason (Evan Alex), who’s always wearing a monkey mask and trying to get a magic trick to work. But the real problem, as we see in a flashback, is when little Adelaide wandered away from her folks and into a mirrored fun house, she met her physical double… or did she? That memory still haunts her today, especially at their summer home.

But THIS summer goes bad one night, when a family of four, dressed in identical red jumpsuits, shows up in their driveway. Well, quicker than you can say, “home invasion”, these people barge in, but (what the?!) they’re all exact doppelgangers of Adelaide, Gabe, Zora, and Jason! And each brandishing a really, really long pair of golden scissors. Red, Adelaide’s doppelganger, speaks in a horrible broken raspy voice and tells Adelaide she is part of the “Tethered” and boom! The chase is on as each body-double begins to pursue the other, while Red has a bizarre tête-à-tête with Adelaide.

But escapes are inevitable and the family Wilson do just that, high-tailing for their up-scale neighbors, Kitty & Josh Taylor (Elizabeth Moss & Tim Heidecker). Much to Adelaide and her families shock and horror, they are met with murderous red-jumpsuited doppelgangers of Kitty & Josh Taylor! Uh-oh! Things get way loopy after this and, like an episode of Black Mirror on steroids, the Wilson’s are just trying to get the heck outta Dodge while learning some truly unsettling facts about what is happening around them.

Be prepared, however, for a WTF mind-blowing third act, filled with bunny-rabbit, hand-holding, underground bizarreness. Really, I went home with about 35 questions! Writer/producer/director Peele did this on purpose, stating that he wanted to “leave a little wiggle-room for the audience to figure out their own ending”. I hate that. Now, look, I like a nice twisty-turny ending as much as the next person, but THIS one upset me. At least with his Get Out, the ending was clear and you walked away happy. HERE I was begging for a clue, a crumb, some small morsel of information that made sense. I finally had to go to YouTube and watch The Ending of Us Explained that helped out.

Now for the good news: Peele did NOT disappoint as far as writing, dialogue, direction, and casting. For his second movie, you’d think he’d play it safe, but he didn’t. Aside from the questionable ending, the writing is sharp, articulate, and loaded with dark humor while delivering a heavy dose of horror mixed with a blend of eerie sci-fi.

It’s no wonder Peele is show-running the new Twilight Zone series this April on CBS All Access. But the REAL talent here, without question, is Nyong’o. Paired up again with Winston Duke, her Black Panther co-star, she gives an incredible double-performance as both the scared-out-of-her-wits Adelaide and the sinister Red. This is Oscar worthy stuff right here, people! Duke is also terrific, as are Joseph and Alex.

The Dark Half (1993)

This story is loosely based on the true story of how horror author, Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) was exposed by some guy and had to come clean about his secret authorship. So what did King do? He wrote a book about an author whose fake identity is exposed and goes on a killing spree! How very meta!!

Being a writer ain’t easy, just ask Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), author of a few highbrow literary novels that pays the bills, but better known for the bestselling murder-mystery suspense-thrillers as “George Stark”. After being blackmailed one day by some sleazy con man who threatens to expose Thad (George) to the world, Thad decides to beat the man to the punch and just tell everyone who he is publicly. As a publicity stunt, Thad ‘buries’ George Stark in a symbolic grave in a local cemetery for People Magazine. BUT! The manifestation of Stark (also played by Hutton) from the novels, exits the grave, steals his favorite car of choice (a beautiful black 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado) and goes on a murderous rampage, offing the people that wanted him dead.

Of course, police suspect Thad because, well, Stark IS him! Thad tries to convince Sheriff Pangborn (Michael Rooker) about his innocence, but all those phone calls and fingerprint evidence don’t lie. Thad tells Pangborn and his wife (Amy Madigan) that Stark is, in fact, his long-dead parasitic twin that was removed from his brain was he was a kid. Thad explains that Stark is the twisted, evil half of him that takes over when he writes his gruesome murder novels, but now he’s managed to become flesh & blood! Oh yeah, like everyone believes THAT explanation! BTW: what’s up with all those thousands of birds flying everywhere?

As you can imagine, Stark isn’t satisfied with being ‘written out’ of those novels just yet and, after killing everyone that was a threat, returns to Thad to have him write another Stark novel. Adapting Stephen King novels for the screen is a tricky thing. You can do them justice (Pet Semetary, Firestarter, IT) or they can go terribly wrong and suck (The Dark Tower, Maximum Overdrive, Cell). But, thankfully, this one had George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) as both screenwriter and director to see it through.

Romero, no stranger to blood & gore, amp’s up the thrills in this adaptation as Hutton plays two parts equally well: the dutiful Castle Rock husband, teacher, father of two, and placid writer, but when his dark half takes over, Hutton (as Stark) is cruel, evil, and diabolically twisted. Romero knows how to direct a horror film and has fun with this one, injecting dark humor throughout. Although it wasn’t a box office smash, probably due to being held in limbo for two years (Orion Pictures had  legal issues), but it did garner much praise for Hutton and the screenplay.

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