Get Out: Terror, Tension, and Race in the Modern Horror

The buzz has been on about Get Out since late last year when it was announced that Jordan Peele, award-winning comedian and actor know for the hit comedy series Mad TV and co-creator of Key and Peele, had written and directed his first film, and not only was it a horror, but it carried a message . The hype machine ran rampant with accolades as usual, but this time, it was right. He’s made an excellent horror film that illustrates an everyday fear and paranoia once thought to be exaggerated by most, but now (one would hope) most likely understood by all in today’s politically and racially charged world.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young photographer preparing to spend the weekend with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). They plan to visit her parents out of town, and Chris is concerned because Rose, and her family, are white, and he is black. When she reassures him that her parents will happily accept him into the fold, they head up her family estate. After a jarring experience hitting a deer and dealing with suspicious local police, Chris attempts to keep his cool as he is interrogated by Rose’s parents Missy and Dean Armitage (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) and her strange brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). Things get even more awkward when a yearly party with their old school family friends conveniently takes place during their weekend visit.

Chris feels not only alienated and scrutinized during his time with Rose, her family, and their white friends, but also that something isn’t quite right. When his interactions with the extremely odd black house staff Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and a black guest (Lakeith Stanfield) at the party go south, his “spidey” senses tell him all isn’t as it seems at the Armitage gathering.

Get Out bridges horror with a mixture of Hitchcock-style suspense and Twilight Zone weirdness, nailing the daily horrors of being a person of colour navigating a systemically racist society at large. The social commentary was so well done that everyone person of colour can nod their heads as they relate to the micro aggressions in the film that are dealt with daily, in fact, there are many themes I want to touch on, but I’ll try to make each observation brief.

A young African-American man, an anti-everyman who is both feared and envied, as the vessel to convey the current social climate was bold, brilliant and well needed. Not since Night of the Living Dead’s Ben (Duane Jones) and that film’s supposed accidental social commentary during the Civil Rights era have we seen such a memorable character. Chris embodies the aspirations of every young Black man and woman who just wants to live unafraid and with all the same opportunities afforded to everyone else in the country touted as “the land of the free”. It’s a heavy load to bear, but Kaluuya plays the character to a “T”. I first saw him as a teenager in a British series called The Fades, where he played the best friend of a boy who had supernatural powers. Kaluuya was hysterically funny then, and his humour has matured with his portrayal of Chris that dripped with irony, while capturing the sincerity and sensitivity of a young man at odds with his acceptance in a literal and figurative sense. I also thought it was clever to make Chris a photographer as we see through his literal lens and point of view. Chris’s friend Rod (LilRey Howery) creates comic relief not to be missed as he personifies Chris’s inner voice telling it like it is. He’s a throwback to the “Black person in a horror film” joke. I was also thrilled to see Erika Alexander from the 90’s sitcom Living Single as the detective Rod tries to enlist for help.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris

I thoroughly enjoyed the Armitages as well. Keener and Whitford played the slightly off liberal parents with a subversive finesse, bringing to light Peele’s skill at writing them with a complexity that is not often expressed properly. Here, they represented the ingrained ignorance of whites as they assert their supremacy over people of colour without any thought to the person in front of them. It’s a brilliant display of how intent is often masked with a cloak of inclusivity, but only on their terms. While a generalization of White society, it also embodies how Blacks, and people of colour in general, have to pick our battles daily while struggling to keep and define our identities at the same time.

Peele’s use of an interracial relationship as the vehicle for his premise is a no-brainer. Where else can you question your place in society than with two people taking a chance and presenting themselves in the world as they defy archaic social norms? It plays on the paranoia, defensiveness and potentially hidden agendas for those involved in interracial relationships.

Chris and Rose

Lastly, the film is visually simple and clean, with nice camerawork and set design that stood out as effective signifiers of old money and privilege. He also treated Chris’s loss of control with dream-like sequences that were some of my favourite scenes and reminded me of the underrated Under the Skin.

Jordan Peele succeeds in giving us a smart, well-written thriller/horror filled with a great balance of tongue-in-cheek humour and a viscerally intense uneasiness. Without giving away spoilers, he captures the need for the incessant and historic commodification, exploitation and abuse of African-American lives (literally and figuratively) with no consequence felt by those exploiters in this supposedly “post-racial” world. See Get Out and discuss how it makes you feel with everyone you can. Perhaps a film created in a genre that is not usually accepted about a historically ostracized/demonized/shunned yet culturally mined people can open the doors to some sort of social justice, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll see the face of mainstream horror (and film at large) change.

(Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie)

Bird Box: Translating the Unseen to the Big Screen

The day I’ve dreaded for a long time is finally here. Bird Box, the 2014 post-apocalyptic horror debut novel by Josh Malerman, has been made into a film, and as a diehard fan of the novel, I’m here to give you my verdict after watching the highly anticipated Netflix holiday 2018 release.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is pregnant and not looking forward to being a mother. Amidst her life-changing situation, reports of people killing themselves after they see some sort of creature are flooding the airwaves, and soon her hometown. Malorie loses her sister to this threat, and finds refuge in a household of strangers. As the new house mates (who include John Malkovich as Douglas, Danielle Macdonald as fellow expectant mother Olympia, and Lil Rey Howery as Charlie) realize they cannot walk through the world sighted lest they go insane from these creatures, they struggle with this new normal of darkness and blindfolds. Over a span of five years, Malorie must find her maternal instinct, some hope and stay sane to navigate her blind escape to unaffected survivors on a treacherous river journey.

birdboxriver
Malorie rowing blind to safety.

Let’s get this out of the way: Bird Box was a book written in 2014 (see Rue Morgue Magazine’s book editor Monica S. Kuebler’s interview with Malerman in issue #146), long before A Quiet Place, and I’m pretty sure there’s a short film based on similar monsters screened at Toronto After Dark well before the mainstream horror hit too, but I digress. When I first read Malerman’s novel, I couldn’t put it down. I enjoy post-apocalyptic horror, and this hit close to home because Malerman plays with our fears of senseless violence as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Logically, we know we can die at any moment, but he uses fear’s viral nature and the terrifying notion of our sense of sight as the cause for our demise. Malerman also gets my devotion because he wrote a female protagonist with care and sensitivity male authors often miss.

It was difficult to envision a film made from such a compelling book about invisible predators from the viewpoint of blinded prey. Luckily Danish director Susanne Bier, who has a long list of awards and nominations for In A Better World, Brothers and The Night Manager, does an admiral job translating the feel of the narrative, and I love that her illustrious career now includes a horror film. Award-winning screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the pen behind Lights Out, Arrival, and his own film Hours, shows his strength at adapting books by staying close to the jumping timelines of Malorie before being a mother and after, most likely because he had reportedly been working on a script with Malerman as the book was being written. Along with Bier, they sustain the creeping dread I felt while reading the book. Issues arise however, when Heisserer streamlined and changed some of the plot and character development to tell the story visually. The narrative is specifically non-visual and internal and his script watered down some of the more chilling moments in the novel, like the double birthing scene which is tonally quite different from the book due to the lack of creature involvement.  The ending was also far too safe and feel-good.  If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean.  I will applaud the filmmaker though for not giving us the creatures dead on since it would have, as Bier puts it in one interview, been the wrong decision, making the creatures laughable instead of frightening.  Instead, they gave us some rough sketches drawn by the sniveling rescue Gary (Tom Hollander), a conniving madman intent on showing everyone his crazed vision.

Even though the characters veer away from those in the book, the ensemble cast is surprisingly good: Malkovich was entertaining as the self-serving curmudgeon Douglas, and while Bullock played Malorie with a sufficient vigor, I found her portrayal of the character’s coping mechanisms wooden instead of stoic. I wanted to see more of B.D. Wong who played Douglas’ neighbour Greg, but AHS’s Sarah Paulson as the warmer, more feminine foil to sister Malorie, as well as Trevante Rhodes (of Moonlight fame) as her sensitive love interest Tom rounded out the key and diverse cast. Tom, who was originally white in the book, is easily played by Rhodes proving the interchangeability of race and casting. It’s refreshing to see a black man play a sensitive, protective role written for a white character.

My one issue with the diverse casting is Charlie. He is a grocery store clerk who has valid theories about the creatures. Lucy (Rosa Salazar), one of the housemates, asks him in a condescending tone if he learned his theories working at the supermarket or perhaps even (gasp!) college. She is skeptical of his knowledge which is vast because he is clearly well-read, however it’s difficult for her to believe because he’s just a black grocery store clerk. The entire household dismisses his theories in one fell swoop when he reveals he’s writing a book, even though his research is probably closer to the truth than anything else. He also ends up sacrificing himself unnecessarily later to redeem his cowardly nature. This harkens back to an age-old assumption that blacks are less intelligent, cowardly and disposable, and clearly misses the mark in an otherwise well-cast film.

charlie bird box
Charlie (Howery) freaks out as the group heads out to get supplies.

Overall, Bird Box is a mostly decent representation of a book that proves difficult to film, even if it’s getting mixed reviews.  While we squabble over whether we liked the film or the book better, this narrative is important now that there is a political meltdown worldwide. It’s as if the creatures are a manifestation of our greed, hate and turmoil, threatening us with self-destruction as the world’s issues come to a head, so here’s hoping we can eventually remove the blindfolds and look the monster dead in the eyes.