By Elias Savada.
You don’t need to be creative when making a low budget horror film. They can suck, yet are usually profitable with just a video-on-demand deal. Getting an on-the-cheap scary picture to register positively in the public’s mind is another story. I definitely get the feeling that Blumhouse, the production house which put Jordan Peele’s Get Out together, has another winner like it did with Insidious (2010; cost: two million dollars). That film has spawned three sequels (Chapter 4 is due out this October). The 10-year-old company, founded and run by Jason Blum, is best remembered for its Paranormal Activity features. Number one was shot for $15,000 and made about $200 million. They also like to Purge (2013) and act Sinister (2012).
Sure, Blumhouse also has fronted a turkey here and there (2015’s Area 51, 2014’s Stretch, 2009’s Plush), but their winners far outnumber the losers. Blumhouse was also one of the producers behind a small, Oscar-winning film called Whiplash (2014), which premiered three years ago at the Sundance Film Festival. That just happened to be the same venue that world premiered Get Out a month ago. Its cost? Under $5 million. And, yes, this one’s is destined to be a financial and critical winner.
Funny (very), smart (insightfully so), and scary (lightly, not the oops-I’ve-spoiled-my-pants variety), this highly original concept sprang from Peele, a.k.a. half of Key and Peele (2012-15). They’re the wacky comic duo that entertained Comedy Central audiences for five seasons with their offbeat societal sketches. The feature might as easily be an outgrowth of one of their show’s bits – which skewering pop culture, interracial relationships, and the clichés that surround them – fleshed out with an absurdist fish-out-of-water take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
African-American Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is the film’s hero, a gentle, creative, and serious guy who fashions himself a budding photographer. He’s got a lovely, liberal, light-skinned, live-in girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). Their five-month-old bond is so strong that she decides it’s time for him to meet her folks. Even though she hasn’t told them he’s black. Peele’s script plays with the good-natured uneasiness between the couple as they travel north from New York City to the family’s well-adorned lake house (the film was actually shot in Alabama), making room for a few quick bumps in the road. One hiccup involves a local cop who seems more interested in riling up the racial angle after the couple unexpectedly meet up with some wildlife.
The feature attraction begins when the black kid arrives in the white, upper-crust suburban home of the Armitage family, although neurosurgeon dad and psychiatrist mom a.k.a. Dean and Missy Armitage (fabulously played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), by all appearances, seem well-meaning. Rose professes to Chris that her father voted for Obama. Twice. “They are not racist.”
And yet, something is awkwardly off, whether it’s the starry-eyed, Stepford Wives-minded black help, Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), Rose’s hyper-intense brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), or the guests that frequent the household as part of an annual wake in honor of the family’s late patriarch, Roman. Grandad, seen in home movie footages, shares more than a passing resemblance to the bow-tied Roman Castevet in Roman Polanski’s low-budget, massively-appealing 1968 horror entry Rosemary’s Baby.
When Peele isn’t inserting his main characters – the young couple and Chris’ alarmist, apartment/dog sitting friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent – into one uncomfortable situation after another, he’s playing with some interesting visual techniques, particularly one quicksand-like hypnotic effort called a “sunken place,” which is reminiscent of the starry intro to the classic black-and-white (pun intended?) series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). And by the way, comedian Howery has the best supporting role in the film, a frantic black man who hurdles the titular expression at his best friend with escalating exclamation points.
Needless to say, Chris is the most ill at ease when his expectations of the family and their friends take a hellish detour into the realm of mad science, with Peele often playing his isolation for laughs, particularly when Chris finds another African-American guest he hopes to engage in street conversation. Gregory Plotkin, an editor on the Paranormal Activity sequels and director of the last one, does a fine job cutting and pacing the film. Newcomer Michael Abels does a terrific score that provides a scratchy, anxious tone to the film.
While Get Out takes a big poke at racism and slavery, the social commentary that suffuses the film entertainingly blends bloody horror with enlightened satirical wit. Obama may be out of office, a fool may be in the White House, but leave it to Peele to make a film that plays with the notion that the masters of Get Out‘s white house might just be crazier than Donald Trump. Now that’s scary enough for a big laugh.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).