The 92nd Academy Awards have come and gone and while Jordan Peele’s sophomore film Us went unrecognized — even in the Best Actress category, where Lupita Nyong’o’s versatile dual role surely deserved a nomination — horror aficionados know the real score regarding the best films of last year. So does Janelle Monae, whose opening musical number featured back-up dancers in red Us jumpsuits and white Midsommer dresses, with Monae herself being crowned the flowery May Queen and other notable snubs like Dolemite Is My Name and Queen & Slim adding to the costume flair.
Two years ago, when Peele was on the awards trail for his first feature, Get Out, he participated in a THR writers roundtable where he was asked to name one screenplay that had particularly influenced him. He gave an appropriately doppelgänger answer, citing not one, but two films based on Ira Levin novels: The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. The 1975 film adaptation of The Stepford Wives hit theaters forty-five years ago today, and at first glance, its influence on Get Out (another improbably good February movie) is more immediate. However, Peele has identified Rosemary’s Baby as his favorite film and, like the Tethered in Us, it’s easy to see movements mirrored between his two modern horror gems and both those classic Levin adaptations.
Here’s what Peele had to say about The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby in the roundtable:
“For me, those movies were both extremely inspiring, because what they did within the thriller genre was this very delicate tightrope walk that sort of honored the protagonist in a way that you rarely see in the genre these days. And I guess what I mean is, the characters in those movies, the protagonists, are smart and they’re investigative and they’re on the trail. Every step into weird town that those movies makes, there’s an equal effort to justify why the character doesn’t run screaming. That sort of dance between showing something weird and over-the-top and then showing how easily it could be placed with how weird reality is … that’s the technique I brought to Get Out.”
In an interview with Criterion, he drew a further correlation between the titular Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and the similarly paranoid/intuitive character of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in Get Out:
“Rosemary uses her instincts as a new mother to protect herself and her child. On a subtle level, her personality and point of view are helping her out. And it’s the same with Chris. His blackness is what allows him to perceive that something sinister is going on.”
Over and above these statements, there are some obvious plot similarities between Peele’s films and those adapted from Levin. The Stepford Wives, Get Out, and Us all involve a protagonist driving with their loved one(s) to an out-of-the-way setting, where they uncover a kind of body-snatching or body-double conspiracy. (Rosemary’s Baby, the one outlier here, confines most of its action to an apartment building, with the historic Dakota, where John Lennon was murdered in Manhattan, providing exterior shots.)
In The Stepford Wives, the main character, Joanna (Katharine Ross), and her family uproot themselves from Manhattan to a Connecticut suburb, where husbands replace their wives with servile fembots. In Get Out, Chris leaves New York City behind and accompanies his girlfriend on a trip to her parent’s home in Upstate New York, where a cabal of upper-crust whites gather to secretly bid on black bodies.
It’s more insidious than a slave auction. “I want your eye, man,” explains the blind Caucasian art dealer who has paid to have his brain transplanted into Chris’s body. Like Joanna, Chris is a photographer, and the thought of him giving up his eyes to this would-be identity usurper recalls the horrifying reveal in The Stepford Wives where Joanna encounters the soulless, black-marble eyes of her fembot replacement. Us, meanwhile, situates its doppelgänger home invasion in a summer house in California, where the character of Adelaide, played by Nyong’o, comes face-to-face with her own evil counterpart.
In Get Out, even before Chris finds himself strapped to a chair — subjected to cheery prep videos for the brain-transplant procedure — he has already long since realized that something foreign and hostile lurks below the surface of his interactions with his girlfriend’s family, their circle of affluent white friends, and their severely off-kilter black maid and groundskeeper. It’s there in the repeated assurances that the hip liberal dad “would’ve voted for Obama for a third term” if he could. It’s there at the party where some guests make pandering attempts to disarm Chris with Tiger Woods compliments, while others treat him as a mere physical specimen, to be poked and prodded and othered.
This othering, the everyday microaggressions that people endure when they’re made to feel like outsiders, is by no means limited to race or gender, but what Get Out does is look to horror history and build on the model of The Stepford Wives, substituting race for gender in its social commentary. Last year, an article in The Independent noted how the “Sunken Place” had entered our vernacular similar to how the concept of the “Stepford Wife” has—with the terms, respectively, symbolizing a powerless or submissive state whereby a person becomes a stranger in their own body or a passenger in the patriarchy.
The Stepford Wives renders this mordant and memorable in its final image, where we see Joanna’s fembot join the ranks of the wives in summer hats, pushing their shopping carts through the grocery store and exchanging hollow pleasantries. This facsimile of a woman might resemble her, but the audience knows that the real Joanna is gone, implicitly strangled offscreen.
Upon closer examination, this is where Get Out diverges from the body-replacement scheme of The Stepford Wives and moves more toward the subjugated-body realm of Rosemary’s Baby. As Peele noted in the Criterion interview, Rosemary’s Baby is a film “about men making decisions about women’s bodies behind their backs.” It’s not unlike what happens to Chris in Get Out, as he wanders off and misses the silent auction for his body as an immortality vessel. Rosemary just happens to lose control of her body to her husband and neighbors, who tie her to a bed — to be ravished by Satan — and who groom her with tannis root to be a kind of unwitting surrogate for the devil’s son (just one in a long line of cinematic devil children).
As a viewer who lives in Japan and happens to be married to a Japanese woman, the presence of the one Japanese guy at the all-white party in Get Out always mystified me. He’s the gent who awkwardly asks, “Is the African-American experience an advantage or disadvantage?” I didn’t know if that was just a random thing or if Peele was trying to offer another layer of commentary there. Then I rewatched Rosemary’s Baby last year and realized it was a total homage to the climactic scene with the coven of Satanists, who are all white except for a single Japanese photographer. In the same Criterion interview, Peele pegged the function of that one odd character as follows:
“It’s a scary turn in that film because when you see that guy, you realize this is not just a group of run-of-the-mill, Upper West Side devil worshippers. It’s an international cult.”
He also talked about how the creepy music that plays over the film’s opening credits (a device utilized in both Get Out and Us) showed him that “the way to start a horror movie is to give people a hint of where it’s going to go. Even if you move away from that menacing tone for a bit, people know it’s coming back.”
Peele himself now has something of an international cult of fans, and as he continues making movies, we can only hope that he never strays too far from horror and continues to hit the critical and commercial sweet spot that he did with his first two films. Get Out and Us aren’t only indebted to Levin, of course. Peele has shown himself to be an eminently horror-literate filmmaker, capable of weaving in subtle allusions and callbacks to a myriad of other genre staples.
In Get Out, Chris’s TSA-agent friend, Rod, serves as knowing comic relief much in the same way that Jamie Kennedy’s character did in Scream. Us flags its Jaws influence with a T-shirt on a boy, even as it sneaks in other visual references like a beach-lounging parent who suddenly panics about their missing child, or a lifebuoy that comes bobbing up from the water like a shark barrel while the monster it was attached to (in this case, a doppelgänger instead of a shark) remains an unseen menace underwater.
These are just two examples. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that Us takes us into a funhouse hall of mirrors, where a little girl encounters her leering doppelgänger. That’s a fitting face for a genre that is continually shadowboxing with itself and the dark underbelly of human society.
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