“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
A Warning: This column contains plot spoilers for The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and ABSOLUTELY NO spoilers for Us.
Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature Us hits theaters this weekend, and I couldn’t possibly express how excited I am to be back in his terrifying world. But one of the things I love the most about Peele’s work in the genre is that he pulls his influences from some of the best material out there. Get Out, while obviously working in its own entirely unique milieu, drew a lot of inspiration from the classic thriller The Stepford Wives, which was also about a buttoned-down suburban community forcibly assimilating people who are independent thinkers and minorities.
For my money, Us – which is about a family being confronted by their own murderous doppelgängers – has an even deeper connection with the history of horror, specifically the works of genre master Wes Craven. Craven was a filmmaker who loved to explore the dark side of suburbia, pulling the skeletons out of every closet and shining a light in every dingy corner, an approach that Peele certainly approves of.
Us seems to be putting a new spin on one of Craven’s favorite cinematic elements: the Mirror Family. In quite a few of his films, he would pit a “normal” suburban family against an evil, reverse vision of themselves to highlight the grotesque similarities between them. As a matter of fact, this concept was born in his very first film, 1972’s The Last House on the Left.
The Collingwoods are a typical suburban family until their daughter Mari is raped and murdered by a roving gang of degenerates. This criminal gang is structured just like a nuclear family, with father figure Krug running the show, mother figure Sadie supporting his violent urges, and Krug’s son Junior being shaped and guided by the two of them, along with their associate Weasel. When Mari’s parents end up offering Krug and his gang a place to stay, they enact their bloody revenge and murder the lot of them, proving that they’re just as bloodthirsty and violent as the family that was supposedly their total opposite.
He would resurrect this concept in his sophomore feature, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, when a vacationing family gets stranded in the desert and hunted by a mutant clan of cannibals led by Papa Jupiter. There’s an even closer relationship between the families here, as both the Carter family and their mutant mirrors have a rebellious teen daughter (in fact, the mutant daughter Ruby is instrumental in the Carters’ survival).
The Mirror Family is present in quite a large swath of Craven’s work, in many different forms. Whether it’s the wicked father figure Freddy Krueger murdering the Elm Street children in revenge against the parents who killed him, the conservative religious father-in-law that torments Martha in Deadly Blessing, or the horrifying antics of the gentrifying landlords played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie in The People Under the Stairs, this concept would haunt the director for years to come.
The purpose of the Mirror Family is simple. If you force the family to grapple with the darkest parts of itself, they’ll prove the true depths of depravity and violence they are capable of. Peele is perhaps a bit more optimistic than Craven, but there is no denying that the events of Usare going to reveal to its central family exactly who they are. The Mirror Family will force them to look within and confront the harsh truths they’d rather hide from themselves, and use those truths to either survive and move on, or succumb to the darkness.
Whatever the outcome turns out to be, Peele continues to wear his influences proudly on his sleeve and combine them with his own sharp wit and feverish creativity to create something exciting and new. I can’t think of a director who would be more proud to be a source of inspiration for Peele than Craven would be, and I’m only sorry he won’t be able to see the spectacular film that will carry on his legacy.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf! on the Blumhouse Podcast Network.