Oscars 2018: Jordan Peele's Get Out not only legitimises the horror genre but shows way forward for future filmmakers
Nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, Get Out illustrates the way forward for horror filmmakers who want to fight the stigma associated with the genre.
Just like how most variants of vampires are allergic to sunlight, werewolves to silver jewellery and white liberals to political incorrectness, the Academy which awards the Oscars have been nursing a similar allergy — for years — to certain movie genres. Two of the most celebrated victims of this gross injustice have been science fiction and horror. Of course, the Academy's apathy towards the former deserves a whole other treatise in itself, so for now, let us discuss the latter and how a 2017 film made it impossible to ignore the genre this awards season.
It is incredibly uncustomary for horror films to achieve any level of recognition at the Oscars — much less in major categories like Best Picture. So when Jordan Peele's horror sensation Get Out earned that rarest nod of approval, it joined a very elite club of films. The first true horror film to break into this club — filled with epic period dramas, inspirational biopics, gritty war tales and black comedies — was The Exorcist in 1974.
While William Friedkin's timeless, disturbing masterpiece used blood, guts, Catholic mysticism and the more traditional scare tactics to earn the distinction, Get Out takes a more subtle approach by creating a creeping sense of dread and claustrophobia. The Exorcist still makes small children — and adults — sleep with the lights on, scared about the monster under the bed. But Get Out's fears are more real and its monster: the thinly veiled, insidious racism of white liberal suburbanites. By infusing socio-political commentary, Peele has elevated a genre persistently shunned as lowbrow to high art.
The film tells the story of Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a New York City photographer who joins his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) on a weekend trip to meet her parents at their desolate, upstate home. While her family seem warm and welcoming, Chris begins to suspect that everything is not as it seems. When he uncovers a disturbing secret, the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner plot slowly turns into Wicker Man.
Paranoia and tension permeate almost every scene in the film even in its pleasantries and platitudes. Even the humour turns from awkward to a more sinister variety. The pacing helps slowly build the tension to a near boil and the claustrophobic camera work is sure to render many a viewer paralysed or break out in a cold sweat.
Get Out adopts the tones and archetypes of a psychological horror film to express a larger, more personal idea: the marginalisation of the young black man in contemporary America. It stands out from your usual popcorn fare thanks to a tightly structured plot and superior visual storytelling.
The film is particularly effective in satirising the well-meaning 'West Wing liberals' and their dreams of a post-racial America. Peele shows off his directorial flair with visual clues that portend the more sinister events in future and fills its with prescient symbolism and Easter eggs, which remind us of the history of slavery in America.
One of the more potent and discussed symbols is of course the 'Sunken Place'. Essentially a black hole of nothingness, it is a state of stifled consciousness where a black victim entirely loses bodily agency. Evocative of the systemic dehumanisation and oppression of black people, Peele cleverly uses the term to highlight how their voices are silenced and identities stripped under the influence of white supremacy. It illustrates why the film has inspired so much analysis, including a standalone course at UCLA.
Daniel Kaluuya's expressive eyes perfectly capture the palpable sense of menace throughout the movie and Betty Gabriel delivers a mesmerising performance as the housekeeper Georgina. With an off-kilter smile and tears spilling from her fear-induced eyes, her unsettling string of "Nos" will go down in history as one of the most chilling horror movie scenes. And yes, the white people (Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford and Caleb Landry Jones) too perform their roles commendably.
Get Out illustrates the way forward for horror filmmakers who want to fight the stigma associated with the genre. The film proves that if you want your work to be taken seriously, you need to stop churning out formulaic trash and get a little creative and tighter with the plot. That means, no more stories of a jock, a virgin, a slut, an idiot and a nerd going away to a secluded cabin in the woods with some unimaginative, dark history behind it! And while we are at it, let us do away with the 'creepy kids', 'jump scares', 'faux jump scares', 'mirror scares', 'poor cell reception', 'the car that won't start in time' and every other cliché we are all tired of seeing. Rather than trying to make cheap popcorn thrills and a quick buck, filmmakers must learn to subvert these tropes or turn it into a self-aware satire like Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard successfully did in 2012 with The Cabin in the Woods.
Fear is a complicated thing to pin down as people find a variety of things scary. But the common man doesn't worry too much about Nazi zombies, sharknados or toothed vaginas. So, let us get a little realistic. Just a little.
One way to add a bit of realism and depth is by pushing some political buttons like Get Out did. Of course, it is not the first horror film to have a powerful socio-political message. In 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers embodied the McCarthyism-induced paranoia during the Cold War. George Romero used a horde of stumbling, relentless zombies to critique domestic racism in the 60s (Night of The Living Dead, 1968) and mass consumerism in the 70s (Dawn of the Dead, 1978). Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) too was a psychologically complex film tinged with commentary about the rape culture prevalent in a patriarchal society. As Mia Farrow systematically loses control over her own body, it highlights concerns of consent and the habitual dismissal of an expectant mother's anxiety and hysteria.
While all of these films are deemed horror classics today, they were all snubbed by the Academy. In its 90-year-history, the prejudice and general ignorance of — its predominately old white male members as to — what makes for good cinema is telling. Despite terrifying entire generations of moviegoers, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) failed to earn a Best Picture nod. Neither did Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) nor Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). The Exorcist and Jaws were nominated but lost to The Sting and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest respectively. Only tangentially horror films like the gothic romance Rebecca (1940) and the psychological thriller Silence of the Lambs (1991) have ever won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Thus, Get Out’s potential Oscar victory will offer hope for future horror filmmakers — hope that their work will be taken seriously. That is what makes Peele’s directorial debut such a landmark film in the genre’s history.
For generations, black parents have drilled a mantra into their children's heads that they need to be twice as good, twice as smart and twice as talented as their white counterparts to get half of what they have. Guess what? Jordan Peele's Get Out is not only twice as good as the horror films made by Eli Roth, Ti West, Rob Zombie and every other white horror filmmaker but it is a film that is at par even with the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg and Martin McDonagh.
Sure, a Cold War-set love affair between a human and a fish is fascinating and so is the redemption tale of a racist white police officer but rewarding one of the most incisive horror films with an Oscar for Best Picture will help legitimise a genre that has long been unfairly ignored.
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