[Editor’s note: The following articles contains spoilers.]
When two people bear a striking resemblance to one another, we often call those similarities uncanny. The word is so rarely used outside that context, in fact, that we may forget its most basic definition: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin.” For two things to have a truly uncanny resemblance, simply looking alike isn’t enough — they have to arouse discomfort for being nearly, but not entirely, identical. The more alike they are, the more unsettling their small differences become.
Jordan Peele understands that distinction, and he puts it to effective use in his second film, “Us.” A horror-thriller about a family of four confronted by their ill-intentioned doppelgängers, it brings to mind not only such genre influences as “The Twilight Zone” but also this passage from Sigmund Freud’ 1919 essay “The Uncanny”:
“The subject of the ‘uncanny’ is a province of this kind. It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general.”
With that in mind, what could be more uncanny than a quartet of doppelgängers that aren’t quite identical to their “tethered” other halves, as they’re called in the film? It’s no coincidence that the first meeting takes place amid funhouse mirrors, which distort our perceptions and draw attention to features we usually overlook by exaggerating them to the point of humor and, at the proper angle, fear.
When young Adelaide (played here by Madison Curry and by Lupita Nyong’o as an adult) first meets her other half, the mirror twin’s face is obscured by the darkness — but not so much that we can’t make out the outlines of a truly disturbing smile just before the opening sequence ends.
Later, as the entire family — not just Adelaide, but also her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) — is confronted by their doubles, it’s the youngest who first points out what’s staring them in the face: “It’s us.”
Well, yes and no. These evil twins are just different enough to unnerve: Abraham’s beard is longer than Gabe’s, he doesn’t wear glasses, and he somehow looks taller and more imposing than his jokey counterpart. Pluto prefers fire to Jason’s would-be magic tricks, as the burned bottom half of his face demonstrates. Umbrae is just as fast a runner as Zora but has an unsettling smile etched on her face. And though Red is the only member of her underground family who can speak, her gasping-for-air vocalizations are a far cry from Adelaide’s voice.
If these two families were identical to each other, it would be weird. Because they’re ever so slightly different, it’s genuinely creepy.
We see this concept elsewhere in film, as the “uncanny valley” describes CGI so lifelike that the increasingly minor differences between computer animation and real life break our immersion more than something less realistic would. The phenomenon has been seen in everything from “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express” to “Avatar” and “Mars Needs Moms,” all of which have one thing in common: None of them are meant to be frightening. We’ve yet to see a horror filmmaker intentionally exploit this effect for the express purpose of disturbing his or her audience, but the first one to do so will have seized upon something truly uncanny.