This piece contains light spoilers for the film Get Out.
Just when is it that Get Out, the new horror comedy directed by Jordan Peele, abandons its uncomfortable laughs and adapts full-blown terror? A complicated question. If Peele’s movie has any one lesson, it’s that there can be a thin line between horror and the mundane. Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is a talented black photographer going home with his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to meet her parents. The Armitages are white — no, that’s not the scary part. The scary part, for Chris and Rose, comes during their ride in, after their car hits and kills a deer and an aggressive white cop begins to interrogate Chris for no reason.
But that’s an everyday black discomfort. Maybe (spoiler) the real horror isn’t until after that, at the Armitages’ home, when Chris finds the maid and the groundskeeper, Georgina and Walter — both of whom are black — walking and running the grounds after midnight like zombies, their expressions blank and their movements jerky and automatic. Maybe (spoiler again) it’s even later, when we realize Chris has been hypnotized against his consent by Rose’s mother, or still later, when a white guest at a garden party openly jokes with Rose about the size of Chris’s dick.
OK, so that last one isn’t horror so much as it’s plainly horrifying. The movie is a sly reimagining of the 1967 comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, after all: white people acting a fool is its bag. The curious thing about Get Out, however, is the ease with which it slips back and forth between the uncertain creepiness of mundane racism and the outright fuckery of a horror movie. In the end, the movie suggests, it’s all grotesque. And Peele, who’s making his debut here as a director, has a knack for tossing that grotesque up with the same satiric flair he brought to his comedy show Key and Peele — and then for upping the ante with terror.
He’s called the movie a “social thriller.” “It’s definitely the type of film genre, of horror, that I think I am equipped to pull off and I’m sort of obsessed with,” he said in a recent interview, naming The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby as key texts for the genre as he’s theorized it. “They’re films about gender, they’re films about … dealing with justified fears that arose in the women’s lib movement. They’re about men making decisions for women’s bodies. But they’re also entertaining popcorn flicks.”
I’m glad he put it that way, the idea of Get Out making sense within a broader tradition. Horror movies have long dwelt in the muck of society’s cultural fears — including its racial ones. The social critique has lately felt more pointed than usual, with recent popular horror movies about sex (It Follows, The Witch), motherhood (The Babadook), bullying (Unfriended), and even white supremacy (Green Room) reminding us that what counts as horror is often simply a matter of who we are. Peele has said that one of his aims was to make a horror movie from a black perspective, given black audiences’ apparent love of the genre. “We’re a loyal horror movie audience,” he recently said, “but we’re relegated to the dark theater to scream at the protagonist: ‘Get out of the house! Call the cops! Do the smart thing!’”
That’s what makes Get Out a worthwhile effort. What makes it a worthwhile experience is Peele’s skillful genre intervention. Get Out confirms that liberal white people really are the terrors blacks have long known they were — just the way other horror movies confirm that there really is a monster under the bed and that you really shouldn’t walk home alone at night. In fact, that’s how the movie starts: a black man walking alone, in the suburbs, at night. Usually, he’d be the perceived threat. Get Out makes him the victim.
Wasn’t Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scary, to begin with? For the black guy, anyway. We don’t always remember it this way, but as Katharine Houghton’s bubbly 23 year-old character, Joey Drayton, is telling her mother (Katharine Hepburn) how crazy in love she is, Sidney Poitier is on the phone with his own parents, and he’s a complete wreck. He’s so nervous that this otherwise collected, wise character starts sweating bullets. Joey is spilling her guts to her mother about the 37-year-old black doctor boyfriend she’s just brought home, and said boyfriend is comically on the verge of collapse trying to explain the same to his own parents. The terror doesn’t start there. Remember: This was a surprise visit sprung on white parents who don’t know their daughter’s beau is black, so everyone is a little shook. The black stranger in the white house, petrified of an unknown that his well-meaning girlfriend doesn’t quite understand: It’s funny for being so dangerous.
“After 23 years living in the same house with them,” asks Joey Drayton, “don’t you think I know my own mother and father?” Now there’s a joke worthy of a skit from Key and Peele: the notion that white people sincerely have a handle on the racism of other white people. Since probably Election Day 2016, we’ve all known better. Get Out plays with the idea that some of us still don’t. Unlike the white parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the Armitages are immediately and irrecoverably embarrassing — if well-meaning about it. “So how long has this been going on — this … thang?” Rose’s dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford), asks. (Five months, for the record.) “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term,” he later says. Making a point of showing Chris his candelabra from Bali, he says, “Such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture.”
As it turns out, though, this is all a ruse, and when the skin gets peeled back on this idyllic world, much darker ideas about experiencing “another person’s culture,” as Dean puts it, reveal themselves. The wildest ideas in Get Out have real-world anchors — that’s their humor, and their horror. Take the frequent minority complaint that with their tans and butt implants, white people are trying to be Latino or black. What if that were literalized? A historical drama about race can’t give you that.
Get Out has direct contemporaries in a number of hopeful historical narratives about interracial romance, namely Jeff Nichols’s Loving and the ongoing work of Amma Asante (Belle, A United Kingdom). Peele travels some of the same terrain as those films, insofar as both Get Out and a movie about miscegenation law suggest interracial dating can be, uh, difficult. But Peele, dealing with it through horror, examines cultural attitudes with much more imagination, reckoning with racism not as a historical challenge to overcome but rather as something uncanny and unknowable — terrifying for being easy to sense or understand but perhaps impossible to surmount.
It should be said that Peele is an accomplished filmmaker. He’s an avowed student of the genre, and you can tell — sometimes to a fault. His reliance on switching back and forth from angular expressionism to Kubrick-like symmetry is skillful and effective, but maybe not inventive. On the other hand, it highlights his deft hand with actors. Georgina and Walter smile with a bright blankness that instantly recalls the pained grins of the minstrels. Peele’s direction isn’t just tapping into tropes; it’s tapping into history.
Maybe it’s telling that the scariest moment in Get Out isn’t any of the freaky psychological shit the Armitages wind up throwing Chris’s way, but instead something much more mundane: the police. The moment comes late in the movie, and it’s as startling a reminder of racial reality as the ending of Night of the Living Dead, when a black hero survives a night of zombies only to get mistaken for the predator and killed by the police. What’s most outlandish in horror is, above all, the real.