“Do they know I’m… Do they know I’m black?” asks Chris Washington, about to travel to the country to meet the family of his girlfriend of four months, Rose Armitage. “No, should they?” she responds, genuinely considering it to be a ridiculous proposition. Chris is only partially reassured; Rose may be colour blind and genuinely love him, these may be values she has inherited from her parents, but he is not naive. Most of the world does not work that way.
Originally known for the huge success and dubious quality of their Paranormal Activity films, Blumhouse Productions have expanded their remit greatly to the avante garde of The Lords of Salem, the social commentary of The Purge, the bloody satire of The Green Inferno, and it is from that more adventurous side of the company that Get Out springs.
Debut feature of Jordan Peele, now adding screenwriter and director to his already lengthy resume as actor and comedian, when Chris teases about being chased off the lawn by Rose’s father with a shotgun it should never be forgotten that within living memory that possibility would not be a joke to anyone, especially in the conservative southern state of Alabama where Get Out was filmed.
Yet as promised Rose’s parents Missy and Dean are almost too welcoming while by contrast the dinner table challenges of her brother Jeremy border on hostile. But it is the help that bothers Chris; Dean makes light of it, the cliché of the white family with the black servants, yet there is something unsettling about maid Georgina and handyman Walter, their blank stares, their off-kilter behaviour and absent personalities.
A horror film largely told in the daylight in the bosom of an apparently wholesome family, the most obvious antecedents of Get Out are Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives and Brian Yuzna’s Society, the menace behind the mask of civility and charm worn for the outside world as the outsider is groomed for sacrifice, though there are moments which remind of another recent Blumhouse release, M Night Shyamalan’s The Visit.
Unlike Society, with Chris apparently a successful photographer who lives in a beautiful, finely furnished studio flat in the city he is apparently not short of a penny, meaning that it was never class which was the selecting factor, it was instead purely a matter of race, and while the question is asked it is never answered: why are black people specifically targeted?
In this Peele is circumspect in what he does not need to say, that society has made black people second class, that they are invisible and disposable, they can vanish and nobody will bother to ask why. Driven by race without ever saying so out loud, without that edge Get Out would be a standard forgettable thriller but that does not diminish Peele’s work, for many films are built on less.
Juggling his ensemble cast, Black Mirror‘s Daniel Kaluuya and Girls‘ Allison Williams are given the most screen time but it is Being John Malkovich‘s Catherine Keener as hypnotherapist Missy who drives the film, her hold over her family as firm as though she possessed the Voice of the Bene Gesserit, while The Purge: Election Year‘s Betty Gabriel is both sinister and sympathetic as Georgina, and there are too-brief appearances by True Blood‘s Stephen Root and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Richard Herd.
In need of tightening even at just over a hundred minutes, the most obvious excision should have been the entirely superfluous prologue; the audience know they are watching a horror, and rather than allowing the atmosphere to build organically there is a feeling that it was inserted at the behest of the studio, pandering to the modern expectation of horror that without a hook within the first quarter hour attention will irretrievably drift.
While the reveals of the final act don’t withstand scrutiny – what actual advantage is conveyed by the procedure, and what purpose do the candles serve in the process other than to be knocked over onto suspiciously flammable linen? – such narrative contrivances do not diminish Get Out‘s standing among the more intelligent, articulate and relevant horror films of this overly troubled decade.