Us: Jordan Peele’s References and Influences
We examine the influences and inspirations for Jordan Peele's Us, including those he hides in plain sight.
This article contains Us spoilers.
An emerging auteur who doesn’t like to play coy about his favorites, Jordan Peele is a director who likes to wear his influences on his sleeve. After all, he’s rebooting The Twilight Zone and did Us junket interviews while dressed as Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance from The Shining. His first feature Get Out was heavily influenced by Roman Polanski’s creeping paranoia in Rosemary’s Baby and the pointed social commentary reveled in by Bryan Forbes and William Goldman’s The Stepford Wives, hence Us choosing to increase the breadth of inspirations to match the picture’s even more ambitious scope.
Below we’ve rounded up all the influences and inspirations we spotted on first viewing of Us—another captivating socially conscious thriller, here about income inequality—as well as references he visibly namechecks in the picture.
Perhaps the best place to start is among the more amusing and on-the-nose. While the marketing for Us has blessedly remained tightlipped about the actual premise of the film, Peele then immediately tips his hat to horror aficionados in the first shot. After a cryptic description of thousands of miles of tunnels in America that allegedly serve “no known purpose,” we transition to the startling POV of a young girl named Adelaide watching television. To her left are several VHS cassette tapes (already indicating she comes from a home of relative privilege by 1986 standards), one of which is C.H.U.D. This hilarious uber-‘80s flick hails from 1984 and stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.” In that movie, the monsters were actually once the New York City homeless population but after being exposed to radioactive toxic waste, they’ve been mutated into cannibalistic monstrosities.
read more: C.H.U.D. – A Lookback
Even tapping with far less sophistication into the politics of Us, the film centers around a former fashion photographer turned liberal bleeding heart (John Heard) who photographs the city’s homeless population, but notices there’s been a massive disappearance of many who live in the sewers and subways of NYC. That’s of course because they’re being eaten by those who’ve become C.H.U.D.s, a fact that the government is conspiring to hide. Now these humanoids are starting to eat the rich people above ground too, so our erstwhile hero has to take them out a decade before Giuliani Time. The VHS tape of this being present in the first shot is an instant wink that the “us” of the title will be hailing from the tunnels below.
And as a genre film that’s diametrically opposed to C.H.U.D., Adelaide’s family also owns a tape of The Goonies (1985). This Ambilin Entertainment production, directed by Richard Donner, is a touchstone to children of the ‘80s and one of many influences on Netflix’s Stranger Things. In an opaque way, one can also see it inspiring Peele in much subtler ways here. This movie is about children going on an adventure to find buried treasure, however that quest begins in part on them going to an abandoned, derelict restaurant on an empty beach. Eventually they find themselves dragged below into the tunnels (not unlike C.H.U.D. victims) by pirates. It is in those tunnels where the adventure really begins.
read more: The Horror Movie Undertones of The Goonies
It is easy to imagine young Adelaide watching The Goonies and then seeing a derelict funhouse on the beach of Santa Cruz and getting the idea that there is a mysterious quest to be found inside. Hers, sadly, turns out much darker as she’s dragged down by someone who maybe should be like Goonies’ Sloth, a misunderstood friend in the making. Instead her double is a misunderstood threat who ruins the original Adelaide’s life. Both Goonies also conclude aroun the beach.
The Right Stuff
The third VHS owned by Adelaide’s parents is The Right Stuff, a movie about aspirant feelings as warm as Hands Across America. A terrific adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book of the same name, it chronicles the earliest days of NASA and the space mission as a grand adventure of both human achievement and American audacity to stand up to the Soviet Union and make it a space race that would end (long after the film’s credits) with a man on the moon. My best guess is that the film is so patriotic–but in a way that avoids jingoism–that it informs Adelaide’s stunted self-identity of what it means to be an American. Since the child grows up in the tunnels with the rest of the Tethered, she might’ve used this film’s gung-ho, “We’re Americans and we can do anything!,” attitude as an inspiration for her audacious plan to come back up swinging… with scissors.
The Lost Boys
Here is one we initially missed, but Uproxx did not! While interviewing Jordan Peele in the last week, the site brought up that he shot the beach and boardwalk sequences of Us in the same Santa Cruz where The Lost Boys filmed. Peele did them one better, however, by revealing his own easter egg dedicated to that cult horror-comedy classic about teenage vampires getting up to no good on the coast. A Joel Schumacher film that still has kitschy love for starring the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman), there is a scene in the film where the vampire delinquents, led by a spikey Kiefer Sutherland, get up to no good on the boardwalk. They even takeover a carousel.
While speaking with Uproxx, Peele pointed out that The Lost Boys is a 1987 film but the opening sequence of Us is set in 1986… and the characters allude in what sounds like throwaway dialogue to the carousel sequence being filmed at that exact moment.
“There is a reference to The Lost Boys shooting by the carousel,” Peele said. “They’re walking down the Santa Monica boardwalk and the mother says, “You know they’re shooting a movie over there by the carousel.”
Alice in Wonderland
More a reference to the literary work of Lewis Carol than any specific movie adaptation, the allusion is pretty straightforward when Adelaide ends up falling with her double through what she initially thinks is the looking glass of a funhouse. Later on when “Adelaide” (actually the double who did the pulling) returns to the funhouse as an adult, she sees a white rabbit painted on the wall that leads her to the tunnels… and down the rabbit hole.
Another very open influence is Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It isn’t exactly subtle when Jason Wilson (Evan Alex) wears a T-shirt of the Great White Shark fans affectionately refer to as “Bruce.” However, it is more than just a shirt. The sequence in which Jason wanders off on the beach is clearly evocative of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody nervously scanning the coast early in the 1975 blockbuster. While stopping short of replicating Spielberg’s iconic use of the push-pull dolly zoom, Jordan Peele replicates the dread Brody feels in Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide. Like Brody, she knows that they shouldn’t be on this beach and that there is a monster waiting beneath the surface, but she lets the children play anyway. The moment that Jason disappears, her worst fears are as badly realized as when Scheider sees a little boy dragged under the surf by a leviathan.
Jaws is quietly echoed again after Gabe (Winston Duke) attaches a life preserver rope to his deadly double, Abraham. Once pushed off the boat, Abraham is under the water, but Gabe and viewers know the monster is waiting right there because of the float rising up out of the water (in Jaws it’s weighted barrels).
Night of the Living Dead
One of the nicest surprises about Us is how unexpectedly it escalates from being a home invasion movie to being a national invasion film. Peele confirmed as much at SXSW, but there is a low-key zombie movie element to the film as well. From the “family in the driveway” somewhat recalling how folks had slow disaffected reactions to seeing zombies in George Romero’s earliest groundbreaking zombie movies to the fear of them trying to break in the house, Night of the Living Dead appears to be a subtle influence on much of Us.
It gets more obvious though when the Wilson family, realizing that this is happening to more than just them and the Tylers, turn on the television and see it is a pandemic threat. Watching newscasters reveal “people in red” are slashing paserbys with scissors, it becomes evident that the talking heads know only as much or less than the Wilsons. This is very familiar to Romero fans, especially his earliest films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) where the heroes discover they hold more knowledge than what few tidbits they do learn by watching news anchors talking about these strange attacks.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Of course any stories about doubles and replacements should be evocative of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an oft-told nightmare about your friends and family slowly being replaced by Pod People until it’s your turn. Originally a 1954 novel by Jack Finney, the best and most iconic version of this tale is Don Siegel’s 1956 big screen adaptation. However, we suspect the 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman (also the helmer of The Right Stuff) is what served as the main source of influence on Us.
Hailing from what appears to be Peele’s favorite decade of horror, the ’78 picture is a lot less redbaiting than its predecessors while also being more insidious with the final moments turning into a revelation that assimilation is already complete: Donald Sutherland’s protagonist is discovered to be a Pod Person when a friend tries to talk to him. He points to her with a sickening roar indicative of the Body Snatchers in this movie. The screams emanating all of the Tethered in Us, including Red and Abraham, seem intentionally similar to the cries of the Pod People in this film.
read more: The Legacy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Additionally, the end of Us reveals that our protagonist Adelaide is a Tethered herself, just as Sutherland’s Matthew is discovered to be an alien. However, Us raises fascinating ambiguity about that since she has been “one of them” the whole movie, as opposed to recently invaded by the monsters off-screen. Even so, this downbeat ‘70s conclusion where the invading force has compromised our hero is very much at play in the screeches of Us.
The Twilight Zone
Oh yes, as it turns out the man rebooting The Twilight Zone is not so surprisingly a huge fan of its original incarnation created by Rod Serling. In fact, Jordan Peele has openly stated that he initally thought up the kernel of an idea for Us while watching an old Twilight Zone episode titled, “Mirror Image.” Produced in 1960, this half-hour followed a woman who becomes fairly convinced she has a double trying to replace her at a bus stop. She further leaps to suppose there is a parallel dimension where we all have doubles.
While discussing the episode with Rolling Stone, Peele previously said, “It’s terrifying, beautiful, really elegant storytelling. And it opens up a world. It opens up your imagination.”
Admittedly this one is a bit of a stretch, but I suspect that any film about doubles and copies, and that features cloned animals, is at least tangentially aware of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006). In that cult classic, the concept of doubles and replicas is paramount since the beloved Transporting Man trick of 19th century magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is possible because he is secretly two men who are twin brothers. His fatalistic rival Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) then raises the ante by having Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) accidentally build him a cloning machine. They realize it works because they clone an animal, albeit a cat here instead of a rabbit.
read more: Christopher Nolan’s Strained Relationship with the Oscars
Still, the opening shot of The Prestige is a wooded area covered in top hats. These are all the same top hat that has been replicated countless times by Tesla’s machine. In the very first shot before the story begins, we are told what the movie is about. I immediately thought of that moment when Peele’s opening credits in Us was set to the image of a legion of rabbits who are evidently all copies living in cages. Like the shot of hats, the themes of Us are teased in a loaded image at the top of the movie.
Also while listing some of our longer reaches, the Us score by Michael Abels seems very evocative of Krysztof Komeda’s melodic score in Rosemary’s Baby. Peele has been publicly open about how that 1968 Polanski movie influenced the sense of unnerving paranoia that the smiling affluent people around you are evil in Get Out, and certain motifs of the music in Us is reminiscent of the creepy lullaby that soothed viewers into nightmares during the opening shot of the Dakota more than 50 years ago.
Finally, one last reach might be the emphasis on twins being creepy from The Shining. While we initially dismissed this idea, the fact Peele dressed as Jack Torrance while promoting Us brought us back to thinking of the Tyler family in Us. They have two teenage daughters that while in some scenes are normal adolescent girls, they are in others shot to be as menacing as the Grady twins in Stanley Kubrick’s Shining adaptation. In fact, the whole iconography of doppelgangers standing still in the driveway is reminiscent of how Kubrick shot the Grady girls. Also seeing a loved one—or at least a friend—turning into a monster is not unlike Jack Torrance’s own transformation from father to monster.
read more: How The Shining Examines The Imortality of Evil
Hands Across America
This one not being a stretch at all, we thought it worth giving some context to Red’s master plan for her fellow Tethered. At the end of the film, each of the doppelgangers stands hand-in-hand, forming a line presumably all the way across America. This is in direct reference to the Hands Across America campaign of 1986. Founded by Ken Kragen, a music industry manager who was one of the masterminds behind “We Are the World” a year earlier, Hands Across America attempted to create a human chain that ran from New York City to Santa Monica, California. Of course it actually was really primarily based in cities along the east coast, Midwest, and southwest before ending in several Californian cities. Nonetheless, more than 6.5 million people participated in the campaign, each being expected to donate $10 to stand in the line (many of which wrapped in circles in these major cities). The event raised $34 million to combat homelessness and poverty, although only about $15 million went to actual charity after expenses. So maybe not fully the game-changer it was imagined to be, it is easy to see why a little girl might hold onto that as the best of American values.
Our TV editor Alec Bojalad explores the significance of Hands Across America further right here.
So there you have it: all the influences we caught on first viewing. Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comment section below or hit me up on Twitter here.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.