• Ellen Spaak

Us


As one who does not enjoy horror movies, I am surprised to say that Us was wonderfully amusing. Best known for his sketch comedy, Jordan Peele took up his directorial debut with the 2017 Get Out, continuing the horror streak in this latest sophomore film. Both of Peele’s horror movies go beyond just being visually scary by exploring larger societal issues which contribute to the scenario being interpreted as more “real”, and thus, truly frightening. Us follows our protagonist Adelaide, played by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyongo, who experienced a childhood trauma in a funhouse on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. In present time, Adelaide is now married to husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and has two children, Zoe (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The all-American family returns to the same summer home near Santa Cruz where Adelaide spent her years as a child near the funhouse. One day, the family heads to the Santa Cruz beach, and later that evening, they encounter four mysterious visitors dressed in red jumpsuits. Getting a closer look, these visitors are perfect images of each of the family members; they have met their doppelgängers. Brought in to compose the score was Michael Abels, best known for his concert works, and more recently for his film music debut on Peele's Get Out. Although Abels is new to the composition of film music he clearly knows how to make a score sound terrifying, even developing a musical cross-genre which he and the director lovingly refer to as "gospel horror". Abels' main goal with Us was to musically convey the grave terror of the Tethered (doppelgängers) while at the same time empathizing with them. Most of the time the music succeeds with interesting instrumentation and unique ideas, though it has certain shortcomings wherein it succumbs to the tropes of horror music. The first cue of the score is “Anthem”, wherein a choir of children and adults sing in a made up language. It is interesting to consider that the title music for Get Out used a Swahili translation, and that the nonsense syllables used in “Anthem” may be meant to reflect on the twisted nature of the Tethered. Whilst “Anthem” is playing the film gets properly introduced, signalling the switch between the flashback of Adelaide’s childhood, to the present. During this introduction of the main theme the shot is fixed on a single image, cleverly pitting the music as the main focus and establishing the importance of this transition. Us often features bittersweet cues; lyric melodies performed by gentle instruments, such as the violin, simultaneously as unusual and intense instruments such as the cimbalom, kalimba, berimbau, and didgeridoo are performed. Since the film’s main plot has to do with duality, Abels wanted to portray this in the music. This constant mixture of unusual instrumental combinations manages to both set the uneasy atmosphere as well as portray the Tethered as unknown counterparts merged together with their corresponding other. Although Abels includes many clever and unique ideas, he also folds to certain expectations of horror music. There is something about choirs with kids, singing slightly unusual melodic lines in minor that just gets to people. Possibly because of the relationship between children's choirs and churches, or just the thought of a child entering into the trance-like state of disciplined performance a piece like “Anthem” suggests. Other techniques, noticed in "Ballet Memory", "She Tried to Kills Me", and "Home Invasion" include the use of string instruments, especially the violin playing glissandi or tremolos. Atonal music is another typical compositional technique that makes the viewer uncomfortable here, especially noticeable in “First Man Standing”, which enters during the attack when the family first meets the Tethered. It has a strong bass drum marking every beat, in line with the viewer’s heartbeat, and heightens the scene. That said, the balance Abels managed to maintain between experimentation whilst still providing what viewers expect is admirable. One cue I would like to highlight, that established a greater significance in the film, as well as a contemporary top-hit, is “Pas De Deux”. This cue and its analogous scene symbolizes such an important moment in the movie. Adelaide returning to the place where she experienced her childhood trauma, noticing that the Santa Cruz boardwalk funhouse was actually the entrance to the pipelines and unknown universe of the Tethered all along. “Pas De Deux” is the death-fight and dance of Adelaide and her corresponding Tethered, Red. This cue, like “Anthem”, is composed with musical formality in mind. It has a main idea and different sections with slight variations, constantly continuing the chord progression but successively increasing the intensity by adding instruments for a fuller texture. The pizzicato in the violins is musically indicative of a ballet proper, synchronized well with the attacks of Adelaide and Red to exact an intense and beautiful climax. Us was scary, unexpectedly amusing, and original. It was also cleverly predictable in a musical sense. Already in “Anthem”, if we consider the meaning of the word, we can detect the underlying sense of an uprising, reinforced by the cue’s likeness to a march. In this way the clues provided seem obvious, complementing the narrative in a very natural way. However, with some retrospection we can also see that these clues are what allow the viewer to catch up to the essence of the film. All in all, Us made for an entertaining night out. Even better, I am so late in writing this review the film is now available to stream at home on your couch, where you can cover your eyes without being embarrassed instead of half-watching it with one eye open like me! #MichaelAbels



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