My thoughts on the horror genre are pretty much old hat around these parts. I’m not its biggest fan, but I can appreciate it when I see it, and when it raises the bar, I oftentimes love it. We’re in something of a horror boon, with several great fright-fests coming out since 2011. However, as great as The Conjuring or The Babadook are, and as much as I love It Follows, I don’t think we’ve seen any as truly groundbreaking as Get Out in a long time. Hell, I don’t think any horror movie has been on the same level as Get Out since Rosemary’s Baby way back in ’68. It’s creepy, it’s sinister, it’s terrifying, and above all, it has deeply-rooted metaphors and subtext that leave it open to hours of dissection. But as much as that makes it sound like a homework assignment, it’s not. It’s a rip-roaring good time that reminds you why cinema is great-it can entertain, terrify, and stimulate your mind, all at the same time.
Photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is nervous as he prepares for a trip to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams)-and not just because of the usual relationship jitters. He’s African-American, and she’s white, and he’s a little freaked out, despite her promises that they are “super cool” with it, and that they “would have voted for Obama for a third term.” His fears aren’t allayed when they finally arrive, and things seem…off. For starters, there’s the white folks who live on or visit the estate, each of a wealthy profession such as neurosurgeon or hypnotist, who ogle over him every chance they get. Then there are the strange happenings surrounding his belongings-his cell phone is moved, doors are opened, and so on. And above all, there’s the behavior of the African-American help, who seem off-putting, unnatural, unsettling, and above all, un-black. At the start, Chris’ suspicions seem like paranoia, but as the weekend continues, things begin to become more and more frightening.
I think what’s most incredible about this film is the man behind it. Get Out is written and directed (and produced) by Jordan Peele. Yes, that Jordan Peele. The one who helped create Key and Peele. As in, the comedian. And shockingly, he’s crafted an excellent little horror film. He knows the tricks of the trade, and he knows how to use them. Sure, the first two-thirds could be classified as satirical comedy, but this film is in no way a spoof or a comedy. It is one hundred percent a thriller-the kind that Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, and David Lynch used to make. Perhaps Peele has found success because comedy and horror are incredibly similar in their use of timing. In comedy, the key to making your joke land is the set-up, the occasional jab to heighten the humor, and then delivering a killer punchline exactly when the audience’s expectations can get no higher. Horror depends on many of these same traits-you set up a scenario where you know the horror will build, deliver a sense of dramatic irony (a device closely tied with comedy as well) to show the viewer something that the character (or the audience themselves) cannot understand, and then bring it home with something truly frightening (be it a simple jump scare or the embodiment of their greatest fears). Peele utilizes all the tricks and traits he’s learned from his years in comedy to sculpt a multi-faceted horror film. He slowly builds up the tension, never giving the audience too much too fast, so that when something frightening does happen (a frightened man assaulting him, being charged by the gardener, his mental voyages to “The Sunken Place”), it catches the wave of fears and terrors at exactly the right point to ride it for all its worth. This isn’t a film of things that go bump in the night, this is a film about things that seem just off enough to unsettle you before it surrounds and ensnares you. It’s not the things in the dark you should be afraid of, it’s the things that are around you even in the day. Which ties into the other key reason that Peele’s film works so well: the subtext.
The first indicator of what kind of film this is comes with the opening scene. As most horror movies utilize a stinger to pull you into the narrative (think the first-person POV murder in Halloween, or the woman running down the street in It Follows), Get Out chooses to follows in the tradition of its predecessors. However, this one is different in presentation: as the eerie “Run, Rabbit, Run” plays, we watch a young black man wearing a hoodie (LaKeith Stanfield, who nearly steals the movie) walks through a gated community while pursued by a creepy white car. It’s a frightening sequence on its own; it’s even more terrifying when you remember the connotations and subtext this scene carries. This is a film that wants to use horror to explore what African-Americans are subjected to on a day-to-day basis. From micro to macro-aggressions, the film finds the frightening undertones of everything they go through, from sexualization and commoditization of their skin color and “genetic makeup” (their words, not mine) to interactions with the police. It’s perhaps the most blatant exploration of a theme or issue in a horror movie ever, but it’s also one of the best, and a major reason for that is who Peele picks as his villains. You see, in a movie about racism, it would be easy to pick any one of the groups of blatant racists in the world, from Nazis to the alt-right to the stereotypical southern redneck. However, Peele, much smarter than that, has a much more subtle, sophisticated target: the white liberal ally. The ones who decry racism at every angle and think they’re helping by “standing up to the man” or dating a black person. In any other major film, this person would be portrayed as an ally, or the hero, but Peele sees the bias and fears behind their motives, and he hones in on it. He focuses on the subtle comments and actions that they say or do, and he finds the underlying horror that these connotations carry. It helps make this one of the smartest, most sophisticated films to come out in recent memory.
Horror movies are very rarely hosts for great performances, but Get Out is filled with several strong ones. Daniel Kaluuya is a very strong and likable lead as Chris Washington, playing the intelligent, capable, resourceful lead that has to struggle to survive his ordeal quite well, earning the audience’s support throughout. Meanwhile, Peele goes out of his way to cast the four whitest actors possible to put him even more on edge. I honestly think that Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are the two photos in the dictionary next to “Caucasian,” although they also bring their incredible thespian talents to their performances. Lesser known Caleb Landry Jones definitely hams it up as brother Jeremy, but he’s still highly menacing in the role. Hell, even Chris’ ally and girlfriend is played by lily-white Allison Williams, an incredibly predictable but incredibly smart pick for the film, bringing a naiveté and geniality to the role that contrasts the horror to come. Other great performances come from the aforementioned Stanfield, Betty Gabriel as maid Georgina, arguably the most frightening character in the film, and Lil Rel Howery, who portrays best friend/conspiracy theorist Rod Williams as the film’s much needed comic relief. It’s not a stand-out cast, but it doesn’t need to be, just so long as they nail the choreography of the horror.
Flat out, this is an excellent movie. Jordan Peele has proven himself to be one of the most versatile and talented directors in the business, able to make a smart, funny, frightening experience the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. He knows how to take clichés and turn them into homages, from editing to jump scares to music (a use of “Run, Rabbit, Run” is on par with the lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby or “Goodbye Horses” in Silence of the Lambs, and there’s no moment in film history to be so simultaneously funny and horrifying as a certain use of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” that comes late in the film), and each to great effect. He knows exactly what he wants to say, how to say it, and how to make it entertaining. Whether you’re a horror fan, a social commentary fan, a comedy fan, or just a fan of good cinema, this is a movie you’re going to want to see.