Horror is an interesting genre in cinema. It is a genre that is as old as cinema itself, with the first depictions of supernatural events appearing in films from the 1890’s. Perhaps the first horror film of substance and style, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, was released in 1920 by German filmmaker Robert Wiene. Since then, the horror genre has seen more reinventions and re-vitalizations than one can possibly keep track of.
There was the Universal horror phase that occurred in the 1930’s when classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy all graced the silver screen. The monster movie phase continued into the 1940’s and 1950’s, but the 1960’s gave way to a whole new grouping of horror films. As Cold War tensions began to rise during this period, horror films shifted towards observing more tangible fears and concerns. Zombie movies of the 1960’s dealt with concerns about the fallout of nuclear war, and zombies were used to represent an enemy that we didn’t fully understand.
As horror film progressed into the 1970’s, supernatural themes began to create the structure for such classics as The Exorcist and The Omen. The end of the 1970’s gave way to the rise of slasher films in the 1980’s. The 1978 classic Halloween would influence films like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Hellraiser. This phase would stretch into the 1990’s, with the Scream franchise not only embracing the conventions of slasher films but also parodying them.
The horror genre would largely stall after this time, with the early 2000’s producing mostly forgettable horror films that focused on body count and gore. A long stretch of remakes would also cause the impact of horror films to wane. From time to time audiences would be graced with such modern day classics as 28 Days Later, Let the Right One In, The Babadook, and It Follows. Even now, great horror movies are few and far between. It’s not that Hollywood hasn’t continued to churn out horror movies. It’s just that few, in my opinion, have made an impact and widened my appreciation of cinema. This realization begs the following questions: what truly makes a horror film great and is Hollywood still capable of producing them?
Both of those questions are answered by the film Get Out. To talk about the film, it is easiest to first answer the second question that was posed above: is Hollywood still capable of producing great horror films? The answer is a resounding yes, as Get Out clearly proves. The film does a great job of building suspense through pitch-perfect direction, a lean script, and contained performances. Get Out is a film that sets out to scare you, and it does. It doesn’t accomplish this through excessive gore and violence, though, and that is sometimes the key to a great horror film. I think that Hollywood needs to keep this in mind when making new horror films. The building of suspense is perhaps the most important part of a horror film. It’s not about how many bodies we see or about the amount of blood that is shown onscreen during our journey as a film-goer.
This brings be to the first question that I posed: what truly makes a horror film great? For me, a horror film is made great when it can rely less on violence and more on brains. When I consider what my favorite horror films are, I often arrive at films that connect to the every day. Take A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example. On the surface, the film is a slasher film about a knives-for-fingers villain that is hunting the children of individuals who wronged him in the past. On a deeper level, though, the film deals with more intriguing ideas. A Nightmare on Elm Street ultimately asks whether children should be made to answer for the sins of those that came before them. Additionally, the film deals with the mystery of dreams and it argues that we are most vulnerable during periods of sleep. These ideas are what make A Nightmare on Elm Street such a great film for me.
Not convinced on the gore vs. brains argument yet? Let me provide one more example.
One of my favorite films from 2014 was The Babadook. Many horror fans watched the movie and didn’t enjoy it at all. They said it wasn’t scary and they didn’t quite understand why there was no villain. To voice these two concerns is to miss the film’s impact all together. When horror was first created as a genre, it wasn’t necessarily about good versus evil. It was instead about the fears of everyday people. This became increasingly noticeable during the 1960’s when the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war. The Babadook is less about the eponymous creature of the film and is instead about grief and the hold that it can have on people’s lives. To live with grief is a terrifying thought, and that is where the scares come from within the film. Again, it is not about violence or what we are shown onscreen. In fact The Babadook decides to show us very little, and by doing so it forces us to dig deeper into the film to find its true connection to everyday life.
Like The Babadook, Get Out also proves to be a great horror film because it connects so relevantly to life now. The film is about Rose and Chris, an interracial couple in modern times. The film centers on a trip that the two take so that Chris can meet Rose’s parents for the first time. To reveal any more about the plot would be to ruin some of the films greatest moments. Just know that the film is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a more terrifying twist. Like the seminal 1967 film, Get Out has a lot to say about race relations. Race relations has always been an interesting topic, and a number of films have examined it over the years. Get Out is noteworthy, though, because it somehow manages to mix elements of horror and comedy into the discussion. Prior to 2008, many people might have believed that race relations were better than they were in the past. The election of the 44th president seemed to refute this claim, though. Race relations seemed to have worsened in the last 8 years, and deep seeded conflicts between different races seem to have again been laid bare. Get Out succeeds partly because it doesn’t shy away from this realization. At one point in the film, Rose’s father, played by the brilliant Bradley Whitford, says that he would have voted Obama in for a third term if he could have. Does this make him any more or less racist than those around him? Does supporting racially diverse individuals and causes on the surface help to change a history of past perceptions and persecutions? If somebody were to mention in discussion that they voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 would that lead you to think they were more or less racist than the next person who may not have? Get Out addresses these questions, and so many more, quite masterfully. It shows, that despite our best efforts, racism is alive and well.
Still, I don’t want everybody to think that the film is an almost two hour lecture on race and race relations. There is so much more to the film that is to be admired. As I mentioned earlier, the film is an incredibly lean film that is perfectly structured. There are really no “gotcha moments” in the movie, and the scares come gradually. They build and use characters and situations to create a truly memorable experience. First-time writer/director Jordan Peele, best known for his sketch comedy show, proves to be a great talent. He has full control over the movie and I have few complaints about the finished project. He manages to infuse the film with laugh out loud moments at the same time that he aims to scare the daylights out of us.
Something that Get Out has that not all great horror movies do is a great cast. Everybody in the film is uniformly great, with newcomer Daniel Kaluuya anchoring the film in the lead role. Allison Williams, Whitford, Catherine Keener, Betty Gabriel, Stephen Root, and LilRel Howery are also all great in their roles. The all walk a fine line between camp and truly effective horror.
Final Thought: Get Out is a rarity: a great horror film that deals with real life issues in an effective way. It forces use to examine our own thoughts about race and the perceived progress that we believe we have made.