The history of horror at the Oscars has never been particularly strong. For every success story like “The Exorcist,” there are three classics that were left out of the discussion. “Halloween,” “The Shining,” and “Scream,” all left without a single nomination. Even if you look at the past five years and the resurgence of the genre, only “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place” have nominations to show for it. With Jordan Peele winning Best Original Screenplay, horror captured its first win at the Oscars since “Black Swan” and “The Wolfman” both won prizes in 2010.
As an Oscar watching community, we have had this conversation before. The Academy looks for more mainstream, down-the-middle movies. Genre films, including horror, crime, and comedy, are often ignored. Yet when “Get Out” became a phenomenon, we began to question that mindset. That makes Jordan Peele’s followup, “Us” an extremely interesting film as it pertains to Oscar.
“Us” falls under a far more traditional description of horror than “Get Out” ever did. Peele’s directorial debut combined comedy and satire, which made it palatable for those who often ignore or dislike the genre. “Us” draws far more from traditional horror tropes, looking instead to pay visual and structural homage. From the red jumpsuits (a simultaneous homage to “Thriller” and “Halloween”) to the gloves and scissors (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), Peele crafted an aesthetic that undeniably hearkens back to horror films of old. Even the VHS of “C.H.U.D.” in the opening shot gives away his inspirations and willingness to pull from other stories. Will this love letter to the genre have the same effect on Academy members that do not enjoy horror?
The key piece in “Us” will certainly become Lupita Nyong’o, who delivers two fully realized characters from start to finish. Peele gives Nyong’o the ability to showcase her talent, and she comes through in every moment on screen. It’s an extremely layered performance, and this should draw similar raves to Toni Colette from “Hereditary” last year. However, Colette did not get into the Best Actress race, despite leading the year in critics’ prizes. We could be in for a similar season for Nyong’o.
Considering Peele won a screenplay prize for “Get Out,” the script should definitely be considered a contender for the original category. However, an increase in filmmakers who write their own films has made this category very competitive. Peele’s win could give him the boost he needs to overcome potential first-time nominees. However, “Us” does not rely on its screenplay as much as “Get Out” did. Instead, there are segments of the film that are wordless. While Peele certainly wrote out the direction, some may see it as more of a technical feat than one of the written word.
The strongest chances for nominations in “Us” will likely come in the crafts. The cinematography from Mike Gioulakis has been one of the biggest takeaways of the film. Perhaps the most lauded element of “Us” other than Nyong’o, there are at least ten shots from “Us” that could be considered some of the best of the year. Matthew Libatique earned a cinematography nomination for “Black Swan” in 2010, and that gives Gioulakis the path for a nomination.
The score from Michael Abels stuns throughout most of the film. His use of strings creates moments of unsettling tension and other sequences are elevated by the cues. Some will point to the use of other music as a detriment to Abels, including “Good Vibrations,” “Fuck tha Police” and the incredible use of “I’ve Got 5 On It” by Luniz. That last track was actually pulled into the score for a sequence late in the film. According to the official soundtrack, “I’ve Got 5 On It (Tethered Mix from Us)” only lasts for one minute, forty-three seconds. However, it comes at a point that is so integral to the film, it leaves a lasting mark. There’s a chance Abels gets ignored, or far worse, gets disqualified for sampling the track.
The sound work was also a step forward for Peele. Emmy winners Trevor Gates and Jason Dotts (for the “Atlanta” episode “Teddy Perkins”) are supervising sound editors for “Us,” and they get several standout moments. The way that Lupita contorts her voice certainly required some editing work, as do sequences in Elisabeth Moss‘s house. Sound mixer Ron Bartlett, a two-time Oscar nominee for “Blade Runner 2049” and “Life of Pi,” astounds with the mix. Integrating source music, the score, and balancing the effects was certainly tricky here. This is textbook Oscar-worthy sound mixing.
Other elements will have their champions. The costume design is subtly brilliant, not just for the red jumpsuits, but for the Tethered’s mirror clothing. Every piece works as a storytelling device, and costume designer Kym Barrett has a career of snubs under her belt (including “Cloud Atlas” and “The Matrix”). The editing provides Nicholas Monsour a reel with plenty of showy elements, but will it convert? “Get Out” did not.
The makeup effects transform the performers, especially with the use of hairstyling. However, it is often subtle work (with the exception of Evan Alex‘s Pluto, who is often hidden under a mask). Will the branch appreciate that team’s impressive work? The Visual Effects team should have their day in the sun as well, but some of that credit may go to Monsour’s editing instead. Peele deserves to be in the discussion for Best Director but “Us” will need to be in the Picture conversation for that to take shape. If it can build narratives for a five or six nomination morning, Peele is on the table. If not, it seems doubtful.
After a $70 Million opening, the dreaded “Popular Film” Oscar might be another place to look. After all, it just had the highest opening for a live-action original film since “Avatar” a decade ago. For all the frustrations that could come with a “popular” Oscar, it would undeniably be better to recognize this film than leave it out of the conversation next February.
“Us” deserves to be considered for Best Picture at the Oscars next year, but the horror bias is real. Despite plenty of crafts and performances that deserve that attention, it seems unlikely the Academy will go that direction. As the year unfolds, we may find more places for “Us” to build itself into the conversation. “Us” will be one to keep an eye on, and with a usually high number of potential contenders opening over the summer this year, we may be able to lift “Us” into contention down the road.