The Most Important Pop Culture References Made in Jordan Peele's 'Us'
Throughout his time co-helming Comedy Central's hit sketch comedy series, Key & Peele, Jordan Peele made it very clear he's a pop culture fanatic. From classic science fiction to horror and everything in-between, he and Keegan-Michael Key sprinkled genre Easter eggs throughout the show's five seasons. With Us, Peele's new horror movie following the success of 2017's Get Out, the filmmaker continues this trend while presenting a satirical, violent look at America's fractured cultural landscape by injecting the film with tons of imagery and pop culture references that harken back to his own formative years growing up in Ronald Reagan's America.
It's not that tough to draw a straight line from Reaganomics and "Just Say No" to Trump's "MAGA" and "Build the Wall." Peele is obviously doing that here, by holding a mirror up to America -- or US, if you want to get cute -- and explores the demons we, as a society, have collectively suppressed. With a heaping helping of '80s nostalgia thrown into the mix, Peele's sophomore horror outing delivers on all fronts. From Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, here are the most important pop culture references featured in Us.
[If you have not yet seen Us, be warned: There are character and storyline spoilers below. For a spoiler-free review, head this way.]
C.H.U.D., The Goonies, The Man With Two Brains, and The Right Stuff VHS tapes
Us opens in 1986, giving a glimpse into the life of young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) as she sits in her family's living room watching TV. As the stage is set, the audience is given a quick look at the VHS tapes on the surrounding shelves. If you think these are just random props with no real meaning to the overall story Jordan Peele is telling, you've got another thing coming.
Featured in this tiny videotape collection are some seemingly unrelated titles: The Man With Two Brains, C.H.U.D., The Goonies, and The Right Stuff. There are elements within each of these flicks that help to inform the emotional and aesthetic ethos of Us. With "The Tethered" living in the subterranean tunnels that exist just beneath unsuspecting Americans everywhere, it's easy to see the inspiration taken from the 1984 cult horror film C.H.U.D. -- a title which literally stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.
The Goonies, which came out in 1985, is referenced multiple times in the film -- we'll touch on its second shout-out a bit later -- and the presence of the VHS here has a similar theme to that of C.H.U.D., minus the cannibals. In the opening text that appears on-screen before Us's title card, Peele references the many mysterious tunnels that exist under America. There's an exploratory fascination in that excerpt that echoes throughout Richard Donner's Goonies. Searching for treasure and running from criminals, Mikey (Sean Astin), Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), and the rest of the crew had quite the adventure, but thankfully never had to do battle with their evil twins.
Steve Martin's bumbling, yet talented brain surgeon in The Man With Two Brains falls in love with another woman's brain, and while the 1983 comedy relies heavily on campiness to get its story across, the notion of a man having emotional ties to someone else's organ -- one that is literally untethered from the body it belongs to -- acts as a proverbial flipside to the coin Peele examines in Us. In his movie, an underworld of doppelgangers exist, each one of them sharing one soul with their above-ground counterparts.
The Right Stuff, perhaps the most subversive inclusion here, follows the inception of NASA to the heydey of the space race. As the Us story begins in 1986, it's interesting to think of the moment when America sent schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, along with a crew of seven, up into space, which ultimately ended in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. By the mid-'80s, America's collective fascination in expanding our physical and intellectual reach beyond the stars horrifically crashed and burned, leaving a big chunk of the American dream in ruins.
As the camera continues to zoom in on the TV set Adelaide is watching, a commercial advertising Hands Across America pops up on the screen. What is Hands Across America, you ask? Plainly put, it was a charity event created by Ken Kragen -- the same guy behind USA for Africa's "We Are the World" -- that aimed to connect all citizens in a linked hand-to-hand chain from sea to shining sea with the intention of curing hunger and homelessness. Unfortunately, it fell way short of its goal, only raising $15 million nationwide.
The spectacle did help raise the public's awareness, but awareness can only go so far. With President Reagan and First Lady Nancy taking part, an element of hypocrisy soon followed; that same week, the Gipper ended up blaming the country's hunger problem on the poor. "Hands Across America was this idea of American optimism and hope, and Ronald Reagan-style-we-can-get-things-done-if-we-just-hold-hands," Jordan Peele told Vanity Fair at Us's SXSW premiere. "It's a great gesture -- but you can't actually cure hunger and all that."
It's that type of hypocritical classist duality that Peele regularly explores throughout Us. And with Hands Across America transpiring just five months after the Challenger blew up, it was obvious the nation was trying to heal, but this event ended up being the wrong type of Band-Aid for the wound. "That was when I was afraid of horror movies. That’s when the Challenger disaster happened," Peele continued in Vanity Fair. "There are several '80s images that conjure up a feeling of both bliss and innocence, and also the darkest of the dark."
Michael Jackson's "Thriller"
Just moments after the Hands Across America commercial plays, Adelaide and her parents visit a carnival along the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California. It's not long before her father, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, wins Adelaide a coveted t-shirt depicting Michael Jackson in all his zombified Thriller glory. It was 1986 -- a simpler time, and Peele uses his reverence for the era by juxtaposing Jackson's conflicting personas with our own past and present understandings of the man.
"Michael Jackson is probably the patron saint of duality," Peele explained to Mashable, regarding the movie's use of the King of Pop's imagery. "The movie starts in the '80s -- the duality with which I experienced him in that time was both as the guy that presented this outward positivity, but also the 'Thriller' video which scared me to death."
The red jumpsuits that Adelaide's sinister twin, Red, and the rest of her doppelganger family wear also present a thematic device tied to Jackson's fashion choices. "The jumpsuits are a very impressionistic kind of realization of [Adelaide's childhood memories] ... also, that particular song ['Thriller'] and the visuals it brings back," costume designer Kym Barrett, told Fashionista.
The Tethered are cult-like in the way they move and with the uniforms they wear. Thematically similar to the costume Jackson wore in the "Thriller" music video, even down to the singular glove each shadow wears on their right hand, the red jumpsuit links Adelaide's childhood to the trauma that transpires in the beach carnival's House of Mirrors. Tapping into Adelaide's memories as a foundation for the Tethered's eventual attack, Red uses these visual anchors as part of her insidious plan for this underground community to rise up and link hands in their own bizarre reactive response to Hands Across America. Needless to say, Adelaide is triggered.
This imagery continuously reminds the audience there are light and dark forces at play in Us. And with the real-life horrors of HBO's documentary Leaving Neverland still fresh on many people's minds, the tarnished reputation of the fallen King of Pop leaves an even darker stain on America's consciousness -- and the impact of these visuals gives Us an unexpected jolt. "The irony and relevance is not lost on me now that the discussion has evolved to one of true horror," Peele added.
In 1986, Feldman's star was quickly on the rise. And as Peele revealed to UPROXX, "There are three different connections to Corey Feldman in this movie and they all feed off of each other." The first of which we covered above -- Feldman was a key player in Goonies. The other two Feldman nods are directly connected. In 1986, Joel Schumacher directed the classic vampire movie, The Lost Boys, where Feldman appears as Edgar Frog, one of the vampire-hunting Frog Brothers opposite Corey Haim's Sam. (It's the first film that featured the two Coreys.)
According to Peele, the first beach scene in Us was shot at the same boardwalk carnival that appears in The Lost Boys. And since this part of the story takes place in 1986, the same year Schumacher was directing the film, Peele cleverly slid in a second reference mentioned by Adelaide's mother, Rayne (Ana Diop) as she tells Adelaide, "You know they’re shooting a movie over there by the carousel."
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the other Goonies shout out in the film. The iconic line -- originally delivered by Sean Astin's Mikey as he pleaded with his friends to refuse the allure of a ride up to civilization in Troy's bucket -- in which he says, "It's our time. It's our time down here," is tweaked a bit in the climactic scene where Red spins the message, telling Adelaide, "It's our time now." As we saw with the film's final visual of the Tethered on the surface, hand-in-hand, that line is not just a warning but an expression of earned defiance.
If you're going to talk about a horror film exploring the nature of duality in human nature, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining will eventually come up in conversation. According to Peele, he makes a few tonal references to the Stephen King novel's adaptation in Us. An obvious shout-out comes in the form of the Tylers' (played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) two teenage daughters, who go from normal adolescence to rabid killers in no time. The Grady girls weren't blood-thirsty maniacs in The Shining, but the imagery of the two girls, covered in blood, helps harken back to Delbert Grady's murderous rampage.
Creepy twins aside, Peele admits there's a more esoteric reference to The Shining featured in his film. As he explains to The Playlist, he was aiming to "evoke the feeling of The Shining meets Moonlight" in the blue-hued scene that found young Adelaide lost in the House of Mirrors on the beach. But instead of Danny Torrance riding his trike down endless hallways of the Overlook Hotel before happening across the horrors of Room 237, Adelaide is trapped, surrounded by multiple reflections of herself before coming face-to-face for the first time with her young doppelganger.
Throughout Us, there are multiple overt homages to Stephen Spielberg's classic. Not only does he put young Jason (Evan Alex) in a graphic tee of the movie's iconic shark poster art, the Wilson family's trip to the beach comes to its own tense climax when a panicked Adelaide hunts for her boy who she worries is lost, in a similar vein to Roy Scheider's Chief Brody who scans the Amityville beach as the shark fear begins to set in.
Like in Jaws, there's a threat lurking just beneath the surface in Us. This theme once again pops up once Gabe is faced with his own ominous doppelganger, Abraham. The two end up in the lake after a drawn-out fight and the offscreen anxiety soars as the audience knows full well the evil -- in this case, Abraham -- is right there waiting under the water for the right time to attack.
And while Peele has gone on record that Jaws is one of his favorite films of all time, costume designer Kim Barrett told Fashionista the reference also helps set the overall mood from the get-go, saying, "It builds up this generational myth and also cements [the setting] in California, Hollywood, movies and horror."
Alice in Wonderland
The white rabbit motif is a recurring one in Us, the most obvious reference harkening back to Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland. Towards the film's end, Adelaide travels through her own version of a looking-glass after returning to the ominous funhouse from her childhood. Soon, she's following a white rabbit down a collection of staircases into the tunnels of the Tethered. As she hunts for Red, the further down she goes, it becomes evident that this trip has turned into her own Alice-like journey down a deep, harrowing rabbit hole.
Peele's takes the white rabbit symbol even further from there. In the opening credits, we see a whole slew of the seemingly defenseless animals stacked side-by-side in cages. Later, when Adelaide meets Red inside a Tethered classroom, the same rabbits are out of their cages, scattered about. There's an element here that goes hand-in-hand with the captive state in which the Tethered have lived for years, and the freedom for which they've revolted to take. And while these doppelgangers are not necessarily presented as subservient to the humans above ground, there's a thought that if each person's soul is being shared by one of these sinister twins, who's the real one in control -- and who has the right to be?
We suppose this would be where the cannibal theme from C.H.U.D. can come into play as the movie's climax presents an unexpected twist: During her 1986 trip into the funhouse, Adelaide and Red end up trading places, with Red acclimating to a new way of life above ground. We actually see "Adelaide" eating a rabbit or two down in the subterranean tunnels below. And as rabbits have been known to eat their young, does this terrifying moment paint a bigger picture about "Adelaide's" violent truth and how it relates to her unknowing family? The only one that seems onto her horrifying secret is her son Jason, who chooses to hide behind his own mask to find comfort in the world.
Peele, actually, has a fear of rabbits, which he shared with UPROXX. As cute and cuddly as the white rabbits in the movie appear to be, it's clear they are a symbol of the violence bubbling right under the surface of each and every member of the Tethered community. "I fear their weird glazed-over dumbness," Peele says, before warning, "It’ll bite you! It’s not Thumper [...] It’s a very scary animal for me."