Jordan Peel’s horror debut, Get Out (2016), is a sly fox of a film. Through a tightly wound, narrow-focus narrative, the film twists genre, humor and trope to explore the central thread of race identity in modern America.
Retrospective-minded films, (e.g. 12 Years A Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013], Hidden Figures [Theodore Melfi, 2016]) perform the crucial retelling of histories previously lost, or shunted aside. However, Get Out has done something equally important. The film is inextricably steeped in old-world western prejudice, typified by H.P. Lovecraft and the backwater-histories of the U.S.A., the source of the more grotesque, Weird horror in the film. That being said, the glowing seed at the center of these Old World horrors are the modern, white characters that occupy those spaces, and, crucially, continue to utilize them.
Peel does not beat around the bush — we know how this story ends, regardless of whether or not protagonist Chris will survive the elements, because we already know the true vein of the antagonists. It was strategic call by Peele (or his advertisers) in showing the twist of the film in the trailer. We are not a blind audience, waiting to for the hidden twist (“I guess they actually are racist…”). Especially this new iteration — all too close to home — of racism that compensates to extremes, furthering oppression and insult. Instead we know the nature of this story — we are in it for the cathartic pleasure of the win. Which we hope Chris will achieve, in the end. Get Out is therefore the kind of horror that we ride along with willingly — we enjoy the scares.
Christos Tsiolkas’ Saturday Paper review expressed dissatisfaction with Get Out, partially because he felt the film failed at being a “horror” film. But when examined structurally, Get Out hits the beats of horror genre with a precise, decisive accuracy and rhythm. Violence and tension build with clockwork progress, and, thus, the film rollicks along its tracks towards an inevitable conclusion. Instead, perhaps, the dissatisfaction of the old-school horror fan arises from the playful tone of the film — there is a argumentative, challenging skew to the storytelling and characters that tugs us back out of the immediate threats, and provokes contemplation. This is the unique quality of Get Out. This film does not bite off too much — it doesn’t try to explore every sordid cranny of race politics in America — but instead employs a small-scale story to playfully (and weightily) twist a accusatory finger at the still-present and evolving racism of the modern West.
Now Peele has set his sights on making a series-adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book, Lovecraft Country (2016). Ruff’s Weird fiction narrative tries to compensate for years of overlooked racism in the speculative fiction works of the past. However, the story is fragmented and therefore falls short of expressing the complex body politics of race in old-world (and new world) horror. There also the added complication of the author’s own perspective/projections of experience, as a white author seeking to express a perspective very distant from his own experience. However, it is hard to scrub out a grain of hope for up and comer Peele’s adaptation. Hopefully genre will continue to serve as a structural window through which we can explore new territories.
Get Out’s obsequious antagonists hint that prejudice is not fading, but is instead insidiously creeping into new modes of survival. Here, the racial bias expressed in old-world, ‘monstrous’ horror (so often about the unknown “Other”, dark-fleshed and therefore ‘less-human’) is folded back on itself. The not-so-subtle racial sentiments of the Lovecraftian era are thrown into the spotlight, and they make you want to wince away. There is a bittersweet mix of embarrassment, humor and fear in the film — it forces an uncomfortable but important series of self-examinations. As a result, Get Out performs the crucial work of retelling history, but equally, illuminating the current, more insidious race-climate of the West, and reminds us that prejudice does not slip away, but evolve.