I was no older than Us star Evan Alex when I first watched the video to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” through my fingers. It was some weeks after it premiered on MTV because my family didn’t have cable. Even though snippets of Jackson’s zombified alter ego shuffling menacingly to the beat had their way across old media, nothing could prepare me for the fright of my young life.
While the Luniz’ “I Got 5 on It” has received top billing in the marketing of the film, Jackson’s groundbreaking song is given a fleeting yet significant nod in Jordan Peele’s horror flick, as a young Adelaide (played by Madison Curry) is seen wearing a “Thriller” T-shirt in the trailer. She is at a boardwalk amusement park staring off into a darkness that is threatening to swallow her whole. Years later a grown Adelaide (played masterfully by Lupita Nyong’o) is on vacation in Santa Cruz with her family, which includes her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and her children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). But as night falls, it’s almost as if Peele wrote the script from the "Thriller" lyrics, with something evil lurking from the dark, a sight that almost stops their hearts.
“When I was younger we had the VHS tape of that, and I had older siblings, cousins and what not. And they would watch it. And I would watch it, too, to prove how strong I was,” Lupita tells BET.com. “I was probably like 5 (years old) and it messed me up. I had nightmares about that video for years."
Director Jordan Peele confirms that he also had nightmares as a kid after watching Thriller, but recognizes its art.
“I must have been 7 or something, and it was terrifying,” he says. “But it had that duality; you’re fascinated but also it’s just not right.”
Winston Duke, who plays Adelaide’s awkward yet protective husband, Gabe, says his relatives helped introduce him to Michael Jackson’s music as a child in Tobago.
“I remember it was in Tobago, and my uncle had record players so I heard “Beat It,” “Thriller” and a lot of top hits of Michael Jackson for the first time,” he recalls. “And it was just like being exposed to all these crazy soundscapes.”
Unfortunately, surviving relatives of Jackson—who passed away in 2009—are grappling with demons from his past, as two accusers have recounted alleged abuse suffered by Jackson in an HBO documentary called Leaving Neverland. And without taking sides, Duke acknowledges that this complicates how fans engage with Jackson’s art, if they choose to, but feels it is a teachable moment.
“That topic right now after the documentary is so… complicated right now, on how to consume legacy,” he says. “But I think that follows us into the movie. Because the movie is about what legacy do we leave? And if your legacy could visit you at your door, with YOUR face, are you prepared to see it and deal with the repercussions? So I think Us is speaking to so many things in our society today.”
Us premieres in theaters on March 22. Keep checking BET.com for more coverage.