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When young actor Evan Alex delivered the line "There's a family in our driveway" during the SXSW world premiere of Us, the crowd erupted in applause. The line, which is heard in the trailer, heralds the moment when the film has successfully set the stage for a complex, visceral white-knuckle thrill ride, and audiences finally got their first look at Jordan Peele’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to Get Out on Friday night with the film’s splashy debut at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin.
Loaded with jump scares, conventional horror tropes, and writer/director/producer Jordan Peele's very distinct sense of humor, his sophomore effort prompted everything from cheers to gasps to moments of deafening silence.
Along with Alex, the film stars Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, and Shahadi Wright Joseph as the Wilsons, a picturesque American family whose annual summer vacation goes sideways when they find themselves ambushed by their own doppelgängers.
Like Get Out, Peele's 2017 feature film debut, Us is a densely layered sociopolitical commentary, a funhouse mirror reflection of our modern society that practically insists upon a second viewing.
Unlike the symbolism of Get Out, which was all derived from its commentary on the ugly reality of a "post-racial" America, the symbolism in Us is far more subjective. Which, Peele revealed after the screening, was exactly the intent.
"People love [it] when you treat them like they're as smart as they are," Peele told the crowd, which included SYFY WIRE. "I think far too often I see movies that presume an audience is dumb. I wanted to presume that an audience has the tools to find these things, find these connections, and talk about it and find greater meaning, find deeper meaning, and come back and watch it again."
Of course, the idea of a smart horror film is still regarded as something of an oxymoron, even as the genre finds itself amidst an upswing of mainstream credibility. When asked by an audience member if "genre really mattered" in regards to how Us will be perceived once it's released, Peele seemed to embrace and disregard the importance of what kind of film Us ends up being perceived as.
"I'm obsessed with genre, and I'm obsessed with both trying to paint within the lines of the horror genre, but also to push the boundaries of what that means," Peele began. "Ultimately, that does not matter. We, as human beings, are obsessed with categorization, we're obsessed with putting things in boxes to the point where the debate the genre [that] Get Out was became the conversation. So, my answer has a certain duality to it. I love genre, I love things that are quintessentially horror. But at the same time, who really cares?"
In the end, all the crowd seemed to care about how to process what they'd just seen on screen.
Critics largely agreed, praising Peele’s ambitious vision, though some were torn on how well the filmmaker stuck the landing.
"The less you know going in — and the less energy you spend thinking about it after the fact — the better the movie works," wrote Variety's Peter Debruge. "Trading on some uncanny combination of Peele’s imagination and our own to suggest a horror infinitely larger and more insidious than the film is capable of representing."
Eric Kohn of Indiewire said "Peele’s second outing as writer-director confronts the ridiculously high expectations of its predecessor by pivoting to a broader canvas of ideas about the nation’s fractured identity," adding that the film works because it gives the audience "exactly what they want by delivering what they least expect." Ultimately, The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore seemed to sum up everyone's initial reactions by calling Us "a fiercely scary movie whose meaning is up for grabs."
You can catch Us when it creeps into theaters on March 22nd. Until then, feel free to check out all of SYFY WIRE's extensive SXSW coverage here.