What it is: A horror movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, of the sketch comedy duo Key & Peele. A young black man goes to meet his white girlfriend’s family and seems to stumble onto some sort of creepy conspiracy.
The obvious hazard of a horror movie made by someone who has previously worked pretty much exclusively in comedy is that the tone will be off. The most recent analogous situation I can think of is when Kevin Smith turned to horror with movies like Red State and Tusk, and while I haven’t seen either of those myself, my understanding is that people really, really didn’t like them.
But bad horror movies don’t always come from outsiders who don’t take the genre seriously enough; there are also plenty helmed by hardcore devotees who could stand to lighten up and get out more. Movies like Hatchet (a 2006 slasher throwback) and The House of the Devil (a 2009 slooow-burn retro Satanist chiller) have their fans, but I’m generally put off by works that seem to be primarily interested in paying homage to older movies and tropes without any genuinely new ideas added in, even if they’re executed with an impressive level of skill.
Although Jordan Peele is new to horror filmmaking, he claims to be a lifelong fan of the genre, and what’s impressive about Get Out is that he demonstrates an aficionado’s command of horror’s cinematic language without the self-satisfied insularity that often follows. The film is effectively tense and unnerving as the protagonist, Chris, begins to notice something off with the wealthy whites around him and the few blacks in their midst, and engagingly exciting when the shit finally hits the fan in the last act. Those sequences don’t have much overt humor at all, although we get some strong doses of that through Chris’s friend Rod, a kind of wacky sidekick character who keeps in touch via phone and eventually tries to come to the rescue. And yet there’s a certain wit underlying even the seemingly more serious scenes. As with most horror movies, the central premise (when it’s finally revealed) is so ludicrously awful and strange by real-world standards that one could reasonably react with either screams or laughter, and as with most good horror directors, Peele seems like he’d be fine with either. The movie works as horror, and as comedy, and as sci-fi with fairly sound internal logic, but all those genre elements are subservient to the points being made about racial alienation. In a sense, Get Out does what I’ve seen albums like A Seat at the Table and Blonde do since I started this blog: Use the tenets of current African-American political and social consciousness as fodder for some of the most creative and technically proficient culture in the American mainstream today.
To elaborate on that a little: The real-world anxiety that Get Out exploits is a distrust of white racial benevolence. The movie isn’t going after overt, KKK-type racists; Chris’s girlfriend’s family makes a point of being friendly to him, talking about how much they love Obama, etc., but without getting too spoiler-y, they turn out to have sinister motivations for doing so. I said in my review of Hidden Figures that that film represented an optimistic view of the idea that powerful whites will voluntarily cede some of their influence (and Figures has since come under fire for adding a fictional white savior figure), and Get Out presents an extreme caricature of the opposite view, depicting white liberalism as self-serving and ultimately (almost literally) cannibalistic.
Also worth noting that Get Out was produced by Blumhouse, the company behind more conventional fare like Insidious and The Conjuring. Those movies weren’t so thematically ambitious, but they did a great job at satisfying the appetite of my horror fan lizard brain (even though I wasn’t so crazy about Split, also from Blumhouse), so seeing box office success for a pairing between this production house and a filmmaker with a genuine point of view makes me very optimistic about the direction horror will probably be trending in.