Sometimes politics creeps into horror movies by chance. George Romero, for instance, has said he hired African-American actor Duane Jones as the lead in Night of the Living Dead not because of his race but because he was the best actor. That would make the film’s finale, with its images echoing a lynch mob, and all the heated conversations Jones’ protagonist has with the white characters who doubt him resonant accidents. But sometimes horror is political by design. Wes Craven patterning the inner city-exploiting villains of The People Under the Stairs after Ronald and Nancy Reagan, for instance, was clearly a conscious choice.
From its first scene, Get Out signals it belongs in the latter category. As the film opens, a black man walks down a suburban street talking on his cell phone and minding his own business. The image alone creates a sense of dread even before a car starts to tail him and a masked figure emerges to take him down. He’s done nothing wrong except being the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time. The danger is real even if his offense is not.
It’s a bracing start to a movie that then shifts to become a tense, slow burning film of escalating tension. Daniel Kaluuya (Skins, Black Mirror) stars as Chris, an up-and-coming New York photographer who’s visibly nervous as he prepares for a trip upstate to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Rose is full of reassurances that he’ll be welcome. Her family, after all, couldn’t be more liberal. Her mother Missy (Catherine Keener) works as a psychiatrist helping others all day and her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama three times if he could and will probably tell Chris that himself. He does, with a smile on his face to drive his enthusiasm home. But that doesn’t mean their visit will be a safe one for Chris.
Get Out is the writing and directing debut of Jordan Peele, one half of the team behind the great sketch comedy series Key and Peele. It’s also his first major project since the series ended and he collaborated with Keegan-Michael Key on last year’s future-cult-classic comedy Keanu. It sounds like a departure from his past work, and in many ways it is. Though Peele deploys humor throughout the film — Lil Rel Howery has a scene-stealing role as Chris’ friend who warns him against taking the trip — Get Out is a smart and unsparing horror movie to the bone.