There’s a lot that can be said for Jordan Peele’s dynamic run through Hollywood. Sure, films like Get Out—which grossed $255 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget, garnering near-perfect critical praise, and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay—helped usher the “elevated horror” genre in the mainstream film community. But it can be argued that one of the bigger changes Peele instituted, aside from his unique perspective and stories for the genre of horror, is that the writer/director has been unafraid to inject humor and, ultimately, make these films feel just as “fun” as they are frightening.
On March 8, 2019, Us had its official premiere during SXSW in Austin, TX. Simultaneously, Peele’s second film was being screened for African-American tastemakers and press in select cities across the U.S. during events titled #UsFirst. As one of the chosen few to be in attendance, I must say that it was an amazing experience, being able to engage with Peele’s work with people who looked, talked, and reacted the same way that I do to the screen. Sure, we’re in the audience having the shit scared out of us, but Peele, coming from a mostly-comedy background, knows how to drop relevant humor in his work. At times, some of those moments in Us were hilarious at first, but after taking the entire film in, they were actually layered clues about the larger story at hand.
During one of the extras from the digital and Blu-ray release of Us (available everywhere on June 18, 2019), Peele spoke to the deliberate mix of the macabre and hilarity in his films. “I love making films that are both terrifying, but also fun,” he explains. “That’s what I’m going for here.”
Looking at his past, it makes sense; prior to 2017’s Get Out, Peele was more known for his impersonation of Barack Obama and other hilarious characters from his Comedy Central series Key & Peele or even his stint on MADtv than anything else. When the first mutterings of Get Out started to hit the streets, many wondered if the funnyman could even pull off a horror flick. Peele seemingly took what could’ve been a one-off Key & Peele sketch—black people talking to the screen during horror films—and turned it into a whole horror film, complete with a character literally telling his homeboy to “GET OUT” of the house he’s currently in. Throwing Lil Rel Howery in that film as not just the illest best friend ever, but the comic relief within a tense storyline, is pure Peele. He turned that up even more in Us. Winston Duke was a big source of levity early on, but there were also needle drops in the film that allowed the viewers to exhale a bit before the next terrifying tethered moment.
Peele might be seen as the current horror mastermind in Hollywood (with everything from CBS’ Twilight Zone reboot to the upcoming reimagined Candyman having his fingerprints all over them), but he isn’t necessarily singular in this approach to the genre. The 2018 Halloween retcon, which reportedly grossed $254.3 million at the worldwide box office, was co-written by none other than Danny McBride, who is more known for hilarious HBO series like Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals than anything remotely to do with horror. “[A]fter writing the comedic TV shows and movies I’ve had my hands in,” McBride told Deadline in 2018, “I wanted to spread my wings and try something else.” For what it’s worth, there are some humorous elements in Halloween, including Julian, the precocious child Vicky was babysitting before she got got; that kid’s improvised performance had critics and viewers saying he stole the show.
Another comedian diving into the world of horror is Chris Rock, which is more surprising than initially hearing about the premise of Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out. No one was looking for Rock to drop a horror film, especially not a new entry into the Saw series. In May it was announced that Rock, who said he has “been a fan of Saw since the first film in 2004,” was teaming with Lionsgate to take the series into “a really intense and twisted new place.”
Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group chairman Joe Drake described people being enamored with Rock’s vision of a spin-off. “Chris conceived this idea,” Drake said, “and it will be completely reverential to the legacy of the material while reinvigorating the brand with his wit, creative vision and passion for this classic horror franchise.”
The question is, what’s the reason for injecting more wit into our frightening tales? It’s not like horror hasn’t incorporated humor before; A Nightmare on Elm Street’s slasher don Freddy Kruger was a one-liner machine, as was Chucky from the Child’s Play series. Movie buffs know that some of the worst horror films dwell in the “so bad they’re hilarious” realm, but, for the most part, people going to the cinema to be scared don’t expect to be hit with jokes on the regular. Maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s that so many horror tropes have been done to death (no pun intended) that the fresh idea is to take those who are masters of finding the humor in life’s worst situations and letting them loose on the world of horror. Fresh, new ideas and energy can help revitalize many things, especially if we want to see the genre continue to shine with critics and at the box office.
This shift in the world of horror, where more creatives from the world of comedy are coming in to put their spin on the genre, is only just beginning. If Chris Rock’s Saw spin-off can bring box office success to the franchise like McBride did for Halloween, or how Peele’s two outings have been received, then you shouldn’t be surprised when the floodgates open, and studios start fielding requests from any funny person who has a new idea on horror. That doesn’t mean that all of them will be as critically-praised as a Get Out or Us, but for horror fans who are tiring of seeing the same tropes being trotted out on-screen, this could be the signal of a reinvested boon for the genre.
Us is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.