Changing the game of horror

Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

104 minutes, rated MA 15+

4 stars

A guide to African–American horror films would be a slim volume. There are black people in horror films, of course, but they’re usually the first to die. As in disaster films, otherness makes them expendable.

Black directors of horror are even rarer. That would make Jordan Peele’s debut film welcome at any time. Right now, in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the spotlight on police violence in some American cities, the timing seems ordained. In truth, Peele has been working on it for years; his achievements here are more than just timely.

Since it debuted in Sundance in January, Get Out has become one of the most talked about films of the year. It helps that it has taken almost $US200 million since the end of February, for a measly $US4.5 million budget. The bigger story is that it’s a game-changer, with the potential to unlock the gates for black participation in a genre in which they have rarely felt welcome. Does this matter?

It might. The film should seriously test the old Hollywood maxim that black films don’t make money outside America. It’s early days, but it has already taken $US21 million in foreign release. More importantly, Peele opens up the form by dramatising a simple idea: the fear that blacks feel in a white environment. In so doing, he makes us see the world through a black character’s eyes, and that turns out to be a powerful device. Most horror is about white fear; inverting that is a political act.

This is the story of a young Manhattan couple, very much in love, who visit her parents in the country for the weekend. Rose (Allison Williams) is white and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is black, but she has not told her parents as yet. It worries him, not her. My parents are really cool, she declares, through a dazzling smile.

He’s on edge before they arrive. The house is huge and a little Gothic, surrounded by deep woods. Worse, there are two black servants, a gardener called Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a housekeeper called Georgina (Betty Gabriel). No-one mentions a plantation but no-one has to: it’s implied by the setting. Rose’s father Dean (Bradley Whitford) sees Chris’s discomfort, explaining that he hired Walter and Georgina to look after his aging parents. After they died, he could not bare to let them go. Dean and Missy (Catherine Keener) are classic liberals. He’s a neuro-surgeon, she’s a shrink. Who better to screw with your head?

Jordan Peele is well-placed to make this work. His training has been in comedy but his heart, since a young age, lies in horror. He has appeared in five seasons of MADtv, and since 2012, in Key & Peele, a sketch series with Keegan-Michael Key. Their comedy is sophisticated and politically charged, especially about race, but that’s nothing new. Richard Pryor went there a long time ago, and Lenny Bruce before him. What’s newer about Key & Peele is the way they satirise black characters. There’s a freedom in this, a sense of liberation from victimhood.

Get Out is one long joke about the way black people see white people and vice versa. Chris knows there is something wrong at this mansion, starting with the two servants. His best friend back in the city, Rod (Lil Rel Howery) warns him to get the hell out before they infect his brain and turn him into a sex slave. Peele makes us feel the fear – not just of the people, but their creepy, pastel-coloured, unnaturally clean house and their weird rich friends, who all arrive for a party in identical black limos.

In terms of actual horror, it’s soft. There are few scary moments, but what’s there is imaginative – like the scene in which the black gardener runs straight at Chris, while he’s outside for a cigarette late at night. The scene is unsettling, because we’ve never quite seen a scare done this way before. What Peele does deliver, with gleeful energy, is a blood-soaked finale that’s both funny and ferocious. Almost none of it is predictable – which is hard to do in genre film-making, where the tropes are well established. Peele says he’s working on at least four other horror ideas, so we can expect more. A new era of black horror has begun.