The Time of the Social Thriller

The last person most people would expect to make a critically and commercially successful horror movie would be Jordan Peele. One half of the acclaimed sketch comedy duo Key & Peele, this January’s Get Out is the first film written and directed by Peele. Although most of his experience is firmly in the realm of comedy, Peele is a true student of horror. He calls Get Out a social thriller, a horror movie that plays on our real world anxieties. This has been a characteristic of the genre for a long time. Peele has cited The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, both horror films symbolically about gender and men making decisions for women, as inspirations for Get Out. What is different about Get Out is that it takes what would normally be the subtext and makes it the subject of the movie. It follows an African-American photographer, Chris, as he goes to meet his white girlfriend’s upper-middle class, liberal parents. After being hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother, Chris begins to think that something sinister might be happening to the black people that are brought to the suburb. Along with the more traditional horror of the plot, Peele works in the actual horrors that a person of color surrounded by white people can face. At his girlfriend’s parent’s annual party, Chris is bombarded with a variety of micro-aggressions, ranging from “I would have voted for Obama for a third term,” to a former pro golfer excitedly proclaiming that he knows Tiger, to coded comments on his “genetic makeup.”  Without spoiling anything, Get Out evokes the ending of the 1968 horror movie Night of the Living Dead. At the end of that movie, after surviving a night of zombie attacks, Ben, an African-American man, is mistaken for a zombie and killed by the police. Although the part of Ben was originally written for a white man, Duane Jones, the African-American actor who was cast, fought to maintain his death at the end, knowing the impact it would have. Night of the Living Dead was released right after the civil rights movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, JR. and Malcolm X. Ben’s death reflected the reality of the time. The arrival of the police at a pivotal moment in Get Out is a reminder of the police brutality and profiling that people of color face, bringing the viewer back into the harsh reality of our time and serving as one of the scariest moments in the movie.

What is especially interesting is how well received Get Out has been. Get Out currently has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving only one negative review from the notoriously contrarian Armond White of the National Review. In the two weeks since it has been released, Get Out has grossed $33 M in its first weekend and $28 M in its second giving it a total of $78 M. Its first to second weekend drop was only 15%, a rarity for any movie and especially for a film under the horror umbrella. For comparison, 2015’s wildly successful Jurassic World received a 49% drop in its second weekend and last summer’s The Purge: Election Year saw a 60% drop. With a budget of only $4.5 million, Get Out is a runaway success.
One explanation for Get Out’s success is that pop culture often reflects the political climate that we are in. The Dark Knight was released around the time we entered the Iraq War and is credited with ushering in the dawn of the brooding superhero. The Reagan administration coincided with the reign of the slasher flick. This is one of the most divided times we’ve seen in this country and that could lead to a boom in horror. With four more social thrillers planned, Jordan Peele could be the John Carpenter of this era.

– Program Support Intern, Chandler Ferrebee

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