True confessions: for a horror movie fan I often don’t see horror films in theater. The days of spending every other weekend with friends seeing the latest remake or reboot of a previous franchise are over for many reasons, and there aren’t many horror films I really feel the need to see in theater.
The moment I saw a trailer for Get Out a few months ago changed that. A horror movie written and directed by a black man man about the horrors (both mundane and profound) of being black in America? Done well this could be a game changer. In a genre which is not often kind to many of its participants by default, sincere explorations of race are to my knowledge very rare.
Night of the Living Dead serves as an inadvertent early effort by casting Duane Jones over the white actor the role was originally created for. Ben is by far the most sympathetic and casting a black man to play him adds a layer of racial tension to many scenes in the film. Candyman touches directly on race relations right here in Chicago, but it is done so firmly from a white woman’s perspective. Not to mention both the author of the source material turned screenwriter (Clive Barker) and director of that film (Bernard Rose) are white British men. I don’t know what it says about Americans that something so horrific and prevalent in our culture is so rarely explored earnestly in a genre that seems ripe with possibilities for examining it.
Fair warning – spoilers abound for Get Out and Resident Evil 7
If you haven’t seen it and don’t intend to you can find a detailed plot summary of the film here.
The movie opens with a few clever nods to the horror genre. Instead of a lone white girl walking down a quiet, tree-lined suburban street at night it’s a black man – instantly starting to play with genre tropes. He appears to be trying to find someone he is meeting up with but is a bit lost in the unfamiliar neighborhood.
The camera is tight on him in closeup front and back shots, ramping up the tension by refusing to give the viewer a chance to see what’s directly around him. The whole environment feels a bit like Halloween.
A white car pulls up and the character is unable to see the driver; nor does the driver try and communicate verbally. Our character decides to nope the fuck out of there, turning around and walking back the way he came in order to get away from whatever the driver of that car wants. When he finally looks back to the car it’s is pulled over with the driver seat empty; “Run Rabbit Run” can be heard blaring from the car’s speakers. He is then knocked out and dragged back to the car by his assailant. For a moment it almost looks like the assailant is dancing him back to the car which reminded me a bit of 2AM: The Smiling Man (you are very welcome from the nightmares that short film will give you if you’ve never seen it). A quick violin note plays and we are in business.
We are then introduced to our main characters Chris and Rose (I was wondering why those names sound familiar in a horror film context).
When we first see Marnie Rose, she is eyeing a selection of donuts. This to me reflects the seemingly innocent facade of her character – then later it confirms her lustful gluttony. This scene is later mirrored towards the end of the film when she is searching top NCAA prospects online to find more black bodies to enslave for her family while eating sweets. (Specifically she is eating Fruit Loops from a bowl while sipping on a separate glass of milk through a straw. Yeah wrap your mind around that one). Meanwhile these initial scenes of Rose looking at donuts are cross cut with ones of Chris shaving as he prepares to meet Rose’s family for the first time – showing his understanding of the need to keep up certain appearances and setting up a major theme of the film – the double consciousness.
This movie delights in playing with the few jump scares it has. Chris and Rose hit a deer when driving to her parent’s house – Chris’s reaction to hitting the deer and realizing it might still be alive and in pain foreshadows later reveals of his unresolved guilt over his mother’s death in a hit and run accident when he was a child. Surprisingly this is not the first time a horror film has featured an interracial couple accidentally hitting an animal only to realize it’s not completely dead. (Also if you haven’t seen
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation get on it! We don’t get many female horror film directors and that movie was brilliant IMHO). Another jump scare is pretty well known to the genre – a character unexpectedly walks by in the background with a loud soundtrack jump.
When Chris finally meets Rose’s parents Missy and Dean, Dean unleashes a practical greatest hits album of shit white people say. Also his reaction to Rose and Chris killing a deer is far too gleeful – he mentions specifically they did the world a favor because for every dead one on the side of the road there are a 100,000 more being a menace. Subtle? Perhaps not – but the tension ratchets up at a increasing clip nonetheless.
Later the four characters all sit outside enjoying tea. Peele cleverly shows the Armitage family’s maid Georgina filling everyone else’s drink before Chris’s -even though Chris’s glass is the only one which is completely empty.
The acting in the movie is incredible for a horror film. I know what you’re thinking and you’re right – that’s usually not saying much. In particular the part where Chris tries to instigate a genuine conversation with Georgina and she has a creepily stifled meltdown – complete with grinning and crying while repeatedly saying no to a question he asks before abruptly leaving the room – is truly chilling. As is the earlier scene when Missy hypnotizes Chris in the middle of the night before he truly understands what she’s doing. She temporarily paralyzes him and sends him to the sunken space – it’s like an existential form of the Upside Down. There’s no monster chasing you when you’re there – but you are trapped floating in space while watching your life at a distance as it goes by and you are forced to do what the person piloting your body wishes. This is shown by having Chris floating in space – his perspective of the world a rectangle in the distance he can’t swim back up to. It’s psychologically devastating being pulled in with the character to such a space of helplessness.
The moment when Chris realizes the mess he’s in is one of the better reactions to fear I’ve even seen in a horror movie. Rose’s parents stand around while her brother menacingly swings a lacrosse stick while blocking the exit. Chris becomes increasingly panicked and angry, finally shouting at Rose to get the fucking car keys immediately so they can leave. Til now we’ve seen Chris’s ingrained ability to keep calm regardless of the microaggressions thrown his way. He has now hit the breaking point as he realizes his very survival is contingent on becoming the very beast these white people are sure he could be. He wasn’t that; but they’ve forced him to become it. What a powerful commentary on the damage we can do to one another.
Rose then, finally holds up the car keys she’s has the entire time, saying something to the effect “You know I can’t give you the keys right babe?” The line is perfect – anyone who has ever dated someone who played mind games will know that exact tone.
Chris’s jaw drops – he looks like he might be trying to make a sound but is unable to. The moments I’ve been truly afraid in life – that is what I felt. That inability to even make sound. Some people in the theater laughed at that moment but I think it was played so well.
Missy then knocks him out with hypnosis and instructs the men of the family to drag him into the staging room. The scene is again from Chris’s perspective and feels not entirely unlike moments in the new first person POV game Resident Evil 7. In the game race isn’t explored as a theme – but the game involves what appears to be a demonically possessed rural white family in rural Louisiana who knocks your character out and tries to force you to join the family.
Although its just serendipity that led to Get Out and Resident Evil 7 being released at a similar time and at a moment in America history when issues of race and class are very much in the forefront of our minds – it’s hard not to think these two works are playing off each other by reinforcing and subverting certain stereotypes.
The Baker clan in Resident Evil are a bunch of rural whites who seem evil (the above sequence is clearly an homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but are actually under the influence of a powerful malevolent force. They are being forced to do bad things. The Armitage family is an upper middle class family of white liberals who pride themselves on their ability to not be racist…they all would have voted Obama for a third time so how can they be? Yet they are evil and racist – acting on their own free will to enslave and possess black bodies – a source of endless envy and desire from them and their friends.
I had little to no hope for Rose turning out to be a good guy – although it was such an effective build up to a reveal that she is in on it.
As one of the friends who attended the movie pointed out, Rose’s character by the end is in an outfit which calls to mind colonization and hunting for sport. A stuffed animal of a lion is also in her childhood room. When Chris sees a crawlspace door open in her room (by this time he already knows something is terribly wrong), he looks in and sees a box full of her version of hunting souvenirs – numerous pictures of her and black men despite her previous declaration that Chris is the first black man she has ever dated. The last picture is of her and a black woman – Georgina – her family’s maid. When she goes after him at the end she arms herself with a a hunting rifle.
I did however think there might be a twist about Rose’s brother Jeremy being hypnotized by his mom – he seems unstable but also insanely uncomfortable in many scenes – like he’s itching to get out of his own skin. But it’s a far stronger story when it turns out they are all in on it.
The basement rec room Chris is put in to await the surgery seems like a nod to The Shining with its dated looks (reminding us how long the Armitage family has been doing this) and symmetry. Chris manages to use cotton (!) to stuff his ears to block out the hypnosis track the family plays to knock him out. He fights each family member with a symbolic object representing his relationship with that person. Jeremy with a bocce ball because of his obsession with Chris’s athletic potential. Dean with a stuffed deer’s antlers. Missy by destroying the tea cup she uses for hypnosis. And finally Rose with his bare hands in a moment reminiscent of the climax of Othello.
Besides pulling off the insanely difficult balancing act of horror and comedy while not stripping away from the scariness of the story Peele creates an earnest social commentary. I haven’t seen many horror films which made me hope they would actually create a trend but I hope this one does. I also love that Peele deliberately has Rod react to things exactly the way the audience would – although horror films often rely on characters making mistakes it’s fun to see Rod say all the things characters tend not to say. Peele taps into a something very real and sorely needed in this movie. I feel like I’m on layer 2 at max of a 7 layer cake. I can only imagine how simultaneously triggering yet cathartic this movie must be if you’ve lived the experience he is exploring in this film.
This movie is refreshing for horror because it goes for the heart & mind -not just the jugular. I was truly terrified for Chris by the end of the film. When those red and blue lights started flashing we were at a point in most horror films that’s filled with at least a fleeting sense of relief – not dread. In this case they came up as he was kneeling over a dying white girl. I was nearly crying with fear for him. That’s something horror films rarely make me feel no matter how much I’m rooting for the protagonist. And we still don’t know if he’ll make it – despite surviving his encounter with the Armitages he is still a black man in America. Just like other horror films the character will never truly be safe again. Only in this case he never truly was.