get out changed what the idea of a horror movie could be – especially a noir horror movie. Here’s hoping dark horror breaks out of the mold it created.
Five years ago absolutely no one saw get out coming. At that time, writer and director Jordan Peele was best known as a comedian, cutting his teeth on the Fox series. mad tv before dating her co-star and collaborator Keegan Michael Key on their hit Comedy Central sketch series Key and Peele. But after making a movie together (2016’s Keanu), Peele went solo with his first horror feature get outwhich premiered at Sundance in early 2017. The film was quickly picked up by Universal Pictures and released a month later on February 24. Anyone familiar with the film industry knows that January and February are often dumping grounds for movie studios. in. And yet, get out was an unprecedented huge success, grossing $255.4 million against a modest budget of $4.5 million. The film quickly became a cultural phenomenon, with stills from the film becoming memes and the phrase “sunken place” being permanently added to the lexicon of American pop culture. The next year, get out was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Daniel Kaluuya’s role as Chris, which was his first Oscar nomination) and Best Screenplay (which he won win).
The film is a clever mix of Guess who’s coming to dinner and The Women of Stepfordwhile incorporating deeper racial commentary reminiscent of the Blaxploitation era and more contemporary films like Tales from the Hood. Peele takes a simple narrative — a black man goes to meet his white girlfriend’s parents — and uses it to address more than a century of racial stereotypes about black men. All flavors of racism are on display, from subtle liberal microaggressions to more overt and violent bigotry. Chris is a calm and observant man, and through his eyes we slowly realize that something is wrong. His girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) is performatively outraged at the way her family and friends treat Chris, but her voice lacks sincerity. And when Chris tries to bond with one of the other black people he meets, there’s no kinship to be found. Eventually he learns that his body is being sold to a white man, while his mind is controlled by hypnosis. It’s a terrifying story, exploring how white people have historically ignored black humanity – a simple truth taken to logical extremes.
get outThe success of coincided with the rise of what the internet called “high horror,” as well as the films of fellow genre writers Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, who rose to prominence with their films. The witch and Hereditary, respectively. And as a black filmmaker whose work directly questions race in the wake of April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, Peele was quickly welcomed into the ranks of Hollywood’s new black elite alongside Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins and Ryan Coogler. For the first time in decades, the spotlight has been on black creators in Hollywood developing stories for the big and small screen that center on the representation and nature of black identity. But Peele’s arrival on the scene marked a turning point for dark horror in particular, which hadn’t really been an area of public focus for over a decade. That’s not to say Dark Horror is completely gone – 2011 Attack the block introduced us to John Boyega and 2016 The girl with all the presents was critically acclaimed – but get out gripped the zeitgeist, ushering in a new era of dark horror from a generation of young, black and white directors.
The first major black horror film released after get out has been The first purgedirected by Gerard McMurray from a screenplay by James DeMonaco, creator of The purge film series. The 2018 film tells the story of the first-ever legalized crime night, conducted on an experimental basis on the residents of Staten Island, New York. While the scientists and government officials who implemented the purge are white, those most affected by the event are the island’s working-class black residents forced to participate with the promise of payment. But when the blacks don’t cause the chaos the whites expected, mercenaries are brought in to make the evening worse, resulting in countless murders, robberies, and violence. The historical relevance is clear here, reminding audiences of the many ways the US government has used black people as guinea pigs for their experiments with no regard for our humanity. Like with get out, The first purge reminds us that we continue to be at the mercy of an indifferent white supremacist society and are often left to fend for ourselves.
But 2020 is the year the floodgates really opened, with Justin Simien’s horror-comedy bad hair and director of the duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s ill-conceived pre-war being the first two notable duds clearly inspired by get out. Both, bad hair is the most inventive, attempting to comment on how black women are pressured to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards even in spaces meant to celebrate black culture. But the film suffers from a lack of perspective, with the satire spiraling out of control without real characters to ground it. pre-warThe flaws of are much more extreme, portraying black women as mere victims of constant sexual abuse in the service of a story that evokes our past without insight or empathy. In get out, we feel for Chris not just because he’s a black man, but because he’s a person who wanted love and respect and was objectified in return. When he finally fights back against his white captors, it’s cathartic in part because we’ve spent the entire movie getting to know him as a person. We also get to know the Blacks who have already been taken care of, as the little cracks in their performance start to show. When Chris watches them, he can’t help but see his family, and it visibly hurts him to be in conflict with them. In contrast, pre-war focuses on the characters’ incessant pain, robbing them of their humanity.
That same year also saw the premiere of HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Created by Misha Green and produced by Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, Lovecraft is perhaps the most popular of post-get out media, with its episodes being hotly discussed on social media until it was canceled. But the show fell into the same trap as bad hair in her efforts to tell stories about black women. In the episode “Strange Case”, a black woman sleeps with a white man and wakes up as a white woman. Embracing her newfound privilege, she uses her new identity to assert her power over another black woman. Once again, we find the character’s damning metaphor: in an effort to remind the audience of the evils of whiteness, a black woman behaves in the same way as her oppressors. A year later, the Amazon Prime series Their (executive produced by fellow black Hollywood heavy hitter Lena Waithe) has come under fire for depicting the brutal murder of a black child as his mother is sexually assaulted by racist white men. Both series show how allegory can easily become exploitation when we overlook our own humanity in order to show white people the full extent of our suffering, sacrificing the humanity of their characters in their attempts to duplicate the violence of reality.
2021 also saw the release of Nia DaCosta’s highly anticipated candy man which, like another Monkeypaw Productions project Lovecraft Countrysuffered from similar problems, albeit on a smaller scale. But it has something other projects don’t have: humor. Considering Peele wrote the screenplay, it’s no surprise that the film is one of the few to come out of this era with real levity. In the mad rush to become the next get out, many writers forgot how Peele balanced his horror with comedic moments (mostly due to Lil Rel Howley’s hilarious performance as Rod). Looking back, it’s hard to believe the movie wasn’t always meant to end with Rod saving Chris in no time.
In the months leading up to the release of Peele’s follow-up film Wethe documentary Black Horror has been freed. The film features screen legends like Tony Todd and Richard Lawson alongside filmmakers and academics, sitting together in an auditorium and gazing into dark horror past and present. Documentary sheds light on horror movies that had been forgotten for long periods, like Bill Gunn’s vampire romance Ganja & Hess and James Bond III Definitely by temptationas well as established classics like Blacule and night of the living dead. Peele is featured in the documentary, discussing older films that continue to influence his current work. With We and his next movie Nope, Peele continues to experiment with his narratives, centering black characters while exploring different themes unrelated to our relationship to whiteness. Hoping that dark horror is able to break out of the get out shape and begin to tap into its rich past to create something new and exciting.
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Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian and podcaster originally from Georgia and residing in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer and MTV News. As a comedian, she has performed at venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theatre, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave.