The horror world, like the box office, is being completely dominated at the moment by Jordan Peele’s Get Out, one of the most critically acclaimed horror films of all time. Countless articles and think-pieces have been making their way around the net in the wake of last weekend’s release, and it’s been really great to see. Even sites and writers who don’t often talk horror can’t help but sing the praises of Get Out, which is without question one of the most impressive debut films we’ve ever seen.
Why is everyone so in love with the movie? Well, for starters, it’s a damn good movie. Go figure. It’s unique, it’s from a fresh perspective, and it’s boldly original, blending elements from the past into something entirely new and, more importantly, something with something to say. Get Out, you could say, is the perfect movie that was released at the perfect time, effectively exorcising some of the social demons that are rearing their ugly head perhaps now more than ever here in America. With his debut feature, Peele sets his sights on racism (particularly the liberal kind that wears a smiling, welcoming face), using the horror genre to tackle heavy subjects like slavery and the appropriation of black culture.
Writers who are admittedly much smarter than I have been digging deep into the layers of meaning behind Get Out all week long here on the net, so my intention isn’t to write another one of those pieces. It’s already been done, and it’s been done way better than I could ever do it. But on a related note, I have taken notice of something interesting that I would like to address.
Ever since Get Out was released, I’ve come across a handful of articles praising the film for being smart and socially conscious, two things that the #1 movie in America most definitely is. But that praise often comes at the expense of, well, the horror genre at large. While complimenting Get Out, many writers (most of whom seem to have been paying little attention to the genre over the years) have been giving the ole backhand to horror in the process, presenting this idea that horror movies never really had any depth or meaning in a pre-Get Out world. Several of these articles have pointed out how dumb horror movies tend to be, and they’ve pondered if Get Out will be paving the way for a new breed of horror film. How novel! GOOD horror movies?!
What’s so frustrating about these articles, as a longtime horror fan, is that social and political commentary has been an inherent aspect of the genre since the very beginning – much to the surprise, apparently, of many horror fans, who have been insisting in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration that politics and horror should be kept separate. The flaw in this way of thinking is that politics and horror have been intertwined from the start; in other words, Get Out isn’t the first of its kind, it’s merely the latest in a long line of great horror films with something important to say.
And Jordan Peele is well aware of that, naming Rosemary’s Baby as a huge influence on his film. Roman Polanski’s classic is, yes, a horror movie about a woman giving birth to the spawn of Satan, but more importantly, it’s an examination of patriarchal oppression of women and, particularly, of their bodies. Well would you look at that. Smart, politically-conscious horror way back in 1968!
Of course, the horror genre’s deepest roots are steeped in political subtext, dating back long before Rosemary gave birth to her baby. Universal’s Dracula, released in 1931, is at its core a film about immigration fears, with the title character himself being a European immigrant. Then there’s Night of the Living Dead, a film that (whether it was George Romero’s original intention or not) completely broke the mold and gave us a black hero fighting off a sea of white attackers – in the end, our black hero is perceived to be the villain by a white man, and he’s shot dead. Romero’s subsequent zombie films were very much intentionally loaded with social commentary; Dawn of the Dead was nothing if not a satire of consumer culture. So too was John Carpenter’s They Live, perhaps the most effective deconstruction of consumerism and media manipulation in cinema history.
The list goes on and on, but the point here is that most of our favorite horror movies, whether we initially even realized it or not, have more going on beneath the surface than above it. Subtext, whether directly on the nose or a bit less obvious, is what has always made great horror movies great – you can choose to explore it or ignore it, that’s your prerogative, but to outright deny it’s even there is to do a huge disservice to literally the entire history of the genre we all love so much. This is nothing new, and that’s true even if you’ve only been watching horror for the past 10 or 20 years.
Films like Saw and Hostel were labeled “torture porn” by the genre’s detractors, but the two franchises are not without their own social commentary. Hostel is a film about the rich literally buying the poor and doing with them whatever they please, and though Saw may be a franchise that’s all about blood, guts, and creative dismemberment, there’s a bit more going on than most will ever give it credit for. Saw VI, for example, addressed the problems with healthcare in America – it may be ham-fisted and probably didn’t resonate for most viewers, but it’s present in the material all the same.
And then there’s The Purge franchise, which has consistently made it a point to show how much the annual event favors the rich over the poor; more than anything, it’s a way for the rich to eradicate the poor. The futuristic concept, launched a full four years before Get Out, uses the horror genre to start those important discussions and make those observations about the real world we live in every day. And really, at the end of the day, that’s what both the horror and sci-fi genres have always been about.
While I agree that horror movies with something to say are on the rise at the moment, and will likely continue to become more prevalent in our current political climate (The Purge: Election Year, released last year, was already a direct response to what was coming), the reality is that horror has long been at the forefront of social and political change. Filmmakers like Jordan Peele understand that the freedom provided by the genre allows for those issues to be tackled – and really, what better way to tackle our collective societal fears than with the one genre that thrives on our… fears?
Get Out is one of the most important horror films of my lifetime, but what it isn’t is an example of horror finally smartening up, as some would lead you to believe. Rather, it’s yet another great example of what has always made horror the most interesting, important, and socially-relevant genre of them all. If you track the history of the genre, you’ll notice that the best horror always comes around when the world is experiencing political and/or social strife, and I assure you that nothing about that is a coincidence.
That’s just horror doing what horror does best. What it has ALWAYS done best.