Get Out has scored big in the 2018 Oscar race. The film has been nominated for Best Picture, Jordan Peele has been nominated for Best Director, and Daniel Kaluuya has been nominated for Lead Actor.
If Get Out wins Best Picture, it will be the only horror movie, other than 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, to do so. Recently, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether or not Get Out is a horror picture. From the get-go, I have stuck with the belief that Get Out is indeed a horror film. AMC’s FilmSite defines horror films as, “unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worse fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience.”
The definition is pretty standard, and Get Out certainly fits into it, despite the fact that it was placed in the comedy category at the Golden Globes. Peele was quoted in Newsweek as saying about comedy and horror, “They’re both about truth,” adding, “If you are not accessing something that feels true, you’re not doing it right…you have to be very tuned into the audience and their emotion.”
Get Out works so well as a horror film because it hits all of the right psychological notes, specifically pertaining to racism and white liberals’ compliance. In that regard, Get Out stands with some of the best horror films, the ones that are keenly aware of their audience and issues pertaining to their time periods.
I will be rooting for Get Out to snag some Oscars. I’ll also be rooting for The Shape of Water, a film that leads the Oscar race in nominations and borrows much from the Universal Monsters golden age.
It’s rare for horror movies to be in the running for an Oscar. The genre has been around since the early stages of film and underwent its first Golden Age during the 1930s Universal Studios run, which were films heavily influenced by the 1920s German Expressionist films like Nosferatu. Yet, despite its connection to film history, it has largely been shut out of the Oscars. IMDB has a list of horror/suspense films that have been nominated over the years, and less than 50 films make the list. Some of the films do not fall directly into the genre of horror, since the list combines horror with suspense, and some of the films, like Frankenweenie, are questionable. The only horror film to win for Best Picture was Silence of the Lambs. The Exorcist was nominated, but it didn’t win.
There is a chance that Get Out can change the trend and snag a possible Best Picture nomination and win. Some buzz has already been building, including this recent article by Slate. Directed by Jordan Peele, the film grossed over $200 million worldwide and analyzes thorny racial issues in the U.S. It is the perfect movie for the era of the NFL protests and Black Lives Matter. Beyond that, the film rewrites a lot of the horror tropes and conventions.
The film centers around college students Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), as they travel upstate to visit her parents in rural America. On the surface, Rose’s parents act progressive and appear happy that their white daughter is dating a black guy. Her father says more than once that he voted for Obama, as though that absolves him of any racial prejudices. The film is unique in the sense that Peele takes supposedly affluent progressive liberals to task for claiming to be social justice warriors, but harboring their own prejudices. The film has its comedic elements, too, especially through Chris’ best friend, Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield), who constantly warns Chris that a black man visiting a white girl’s parents in rural America is a recipe for disaster. Andrew also reiterates a lot of the horror movie tropes, namely that the black characters are often the first picked off, especially in the 1970s and 80s slasher films. More importantly, the film shows how the past constantly haunts the present, which is a fundamental element of Gothic literature and film. The plantation-like setting and one of the film’s main plot points showcases that idea.
The film has a methodical pace, building tension scene by scene, from the beginning, when Chris and Rose are pulled over by a white officer who questions Chris for no reason, to the jarring conclusion that echoes a greater fear that police officers can kill young black men without penalty.
I can’t think of a film that better addresses the current racial tensions than Get Out. Great horror films serve as a metaphor for our social anxieties and the cultural fears. Peele’s film does just that, while adding some humor. Get Out is a film that should be analyzed and addressed for years, just like James Whale’s Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s Halloween, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. All of those films rewrote the genre, and Peele’s film does that, especially the conclusion. Normal order is not necessarily restored, a tradition common to horror films, especially during the first wave or two. It is also a film that calls out the progressive left as much as it does the right.
In general, the Academy has had a disdain for horror. IMDB’s list proves that. But every now and then, a film comes along that draws mass appeal and becomes part of the broader conversation. Get Out is such a film.
I assume that I’m not the only one whose social media feeds included conversation, anger, praise, or all out confusion about the latest Darren Aronofsky film, Mother! The film first generated buzz when reports surfaced that it was booed at the Cannes Film Festival weeks ago. After seeing it over the weekend, my reactions to it are still mixed.
First, let me state that there are aspects of the film I liked a lot, including its dream-like quality that reminded me of much of Aronofsky’s work, especially Black Swan, but more so, I really enjoyed the use of the classic Gothic tropes, specially the setting, a run-down house in which every floor board creaks and light bulbs fill with blood (Amityville Horror, anyone?). I also related to Jennifer Lawrence’s nameless character, a woman who painstakingly tries to make her husband (Javier Bardem) love her, including painting and renovating his former home, which burned down years ago. The house is a nice representation of the strain in their relationship and the female protagonist’s ultimate descent into madness (again, another classic Gothic/horror trope).
Generally, I think, audience members will probably root for Lawrence’s character to resist her domineering partner, especially as he invites more and more people over, against her wishes, beginning with a nameless couple played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris.
Harris and Pfeiffer’s acting is solid, but some of the dialogue is just too heavy handed, especially when Pfeiffer’s character asks Lawrence’s character why she doesn’t want kids. At times, I felt like I was hit over the head through the not-so-subtle symbolism and dialogue. Leaving the theater, I thought of films that handle some of the same topics better, namely Repulsion,Rosemary’s Baby, and, more recently, The Witch. The exploration of male dominance and feminist resistance are a centerpiece of those films, but more artfully explored.
The film can also be viewed as an allegory about the creative process. Without spoiling too much of the film, especially the ending, I will merely state that Lawrence and Bardem’s characters each create something. The film is an exploration of what people endure, especially a couple, during the creative process.
What irked me most about the film, however, is the fact that Lawrence, generally someone who plays a tough, inspiring female lead (Think Silver Linings Playbook or The Hunger Games), isn’t given enough moments of resistance in the film. It does come, but it is too short-lived. It is not even clear why she fawns over her partner so much. His character is not given much story. All we really know is that he’s a writer whose house burned down.
Mother! is a polarizing film, but, at the very least, the film is generating a lot of discussion and debate. Give it a viewing and see what you think.
Lately, this blog has become a venue for writing about the horror genre, especially horror films. Horror has consumed part of my life as I work on putting together a horror lit and film class for the spring semester. Because of that, all of my reading lately has been a lot of film criticism and re-reads of classic horror novels. I wasn’t going to offer any commentary on It, but the movie is deserving of thought (and criticism) because of the massive opening weekend it had, raking in about $117 million, thus having the biggest opening weekend for any horror movie and the third highest opening weekend of 2017.
I want to theorize on why It is such a draw and also part of a larger trend. I also want to offer some criticism of the film, where I think it fails, what I believe it does well, and what I hope to see in the second chapter, set for release in 2019.
It is part of a trend of 1980s nostalgia,which follows the success of Netflix’s original series “Stranger Things,” which draws on a few of Stephen King’s stories and adaptations, including It and Stand by Me, namely because it too is a coming of age story about a group of less-than-popular adolescents. It stars one of “Stranger Thing’s” actors, Finn Wolfhard, who plays foul-mouthed Richie. His one-liners drew audible laughter when I saw the movie on opening night. Yet, before “Stranger Things,” there was the success of the independent film It Follows, which is one of my favorite horror films of the last few years. That flick also has 80s nostalgia, not only the soundtrack, but also the set design. There are scenes in the film where it is unclear if we’re watching something David Lynch directed in 1985 or a contemporary horror film. Prior to It Follows, there was 2009’s House of the Devil, also one of my favorite horror films of the 2000s. Directed by Ti West, this film is set in 1983 and follows the story of financially-strapped college student Samantha Hughes, who eventually encounters a Satanic cult. This film is very much Ti West’s love letter to the 1980s period of horror, specially the rash of movies that deal with Satanism, but the film is strong because of its character development, its use of sound, and the unnerving, slow burn storytelling. These are the same reasons that I like It Follows so much (and it also has one of the best on-screen uses of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” that I have ever seen).
It is hard for me to pinpoint why there is such an interest in 1980s nostalgia in the horror genre right now. Some directors may simply feel that the 1980s is one of horror’s last great periods, before the constant rehashes and remakes. It was also a time period pre-9/11, pre-economic recession, pre-Trump, so there may be a fondness for that time period that overlooks some of its real issues (such as trickle down economics, economic inequality, and the Iran/Contra scandal).
This brings me to It. One of my main gripes about the film is that the 80s nostalgia is overdone. There are posters of 80s movies, including Gremlins, that are center frame in several shots. The outfits of the members of the Losers Clubs, the group of geeky outcasts that confront Pennywise the Dancing Clown, are, for the most part, 80s-themed. Yet, none of this really does much to advance the story. Instead, I wanted to know more about the town of Derry, Maine. Why, for instance, does Pennywise even chose to haunt that town? Does he have any relation to it? Why does he emerge after so many years? Was he tortured or killed by residents of the town? One character, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), spends much of his time in the town library, researching local history, but what he finds doesn’t deepen the setting. It also doesn’t provide any context or background to Pennywise. Instead, we’re taken on a 1980s trip, complete with the kids riding around on their bikes in the burbs, similar to “Stranger Things.”
My other complaint about the movie is its lack of character development and its reduction of Pennywise to jump scares and CGI. The challenge of bringing It to the screen is its ensemble cast. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has the most character development, after his little brother, Georgie, is killed by Pennywise in the opening scene, which is also the most effective scare scene in the film because Pennywise is not reduced to CGI. He talks, and he is seductive and terrifying in the way that he plays on Georgie’s fears. Georgie’s death looms over the rest of the film and haunts Bill.
The second film will feature the Loser’s Club as adults, just like King’s novel. Pennywise will return to haunt them, and I hope the film will rely less on CGI jump scares. I would like to see more natural effects. Tim Curry was more believable as Pennywise because of the simplicity of his make-up and his dialogue. He truly could be something realistic from our nightmares.
There are parts of the film I really liked, however. As I stated, the opening scene was perfect, everything from the mood, including the pouring rain in the burbs and the mass of gray clouds, to Pennywise’s introduction. I want to see more one-on-one, unsettling encounters like that in the second film. Let Pennywise linger beneath the surface, in the sewer grate where he lures Georgie to his death. Show us the way he exists beneath the surface, in the subconscious of the characters. That makes him a lot more chilling than over-the-top CGI scenes.
I also loved the coming-of-age scenes between members of the Losers Club, how they bond over being outsiders, how they eventually confront the real-life bullies that torment them. In fact, I wanted to stand up and cheer when they pelt the bullies with rocks and force them to retreat. My favorite scene in the film, other than the opening, occurs in the final moments, where they hold hands in a circle and vow to confront Pennywise as a team if he ever returns, and, of course, we know that he will. I hope that this group of misfits is developed a lot more in the sequel so we can feel for them more individually and not just see them as one group of people that a demented clown wants to kill.
I recommend people see the movie. Buy some popcorn and enjoy the ride because it’s a fun one. I just hope the sequel relies less on rehashed tropes and jump scares and instead develops the Losers Club and their nemesis Pennywise much more.
Less than two months after the passing of George A. Romero, horror cinema lost another heavyweight: Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and other films. Hooper’s legacy is as cemented as Romero’s and the two share one common trait: both Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Masscare were shot on shoestring budgets and grossed millions. They become two of the most influential films of third wave American horror cinema. Romero’s zombies and Hooper’s Leatherface are now pop culture icons.
Over the last year, I revisited The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in preparation for a horror literature and film course I’m teaching in the spring semester. It is unlikely that I will teach the film, but its influence is impossible to escape. In any collection of essays on horror film, there is analysis of Hooper’s breakthrough.
What struck me most about the film upon my re-watch is the use of sound, or lack of sound, and how Hooper established an apocalyptic setting immediately. The beginning of the film finds a group of teenagers in a van. As an audience, we don’t know their destination. They laugh and joke with each other, even as the car radio only gives news reports of violence, including robberies and murders. It’s a subtle thing, but pay attention to the juxtaposition the next time you watch the first few minutes . Then, the teens pick up a hitchhiker, who, for no apparent reason, knifes one of them in the hand and laughs maniacally about it. All of this happens before they even meet Leatherface! Hooper didn’t use a traditional soundtrack for the film, which only intensifies the news reports, the roar of Leatherface’s chainsaw, and the flies buzzing around his house.
The scenery is dry and desolate. The sun is blazing, especially in the final scene when Leatherface does a mad, frantic dance with his chainsaw, after Sally (Marilyn Burns), the lone survivor, barely escapes. This is the perfect horror movie for its time period, during the height of Nixon, the cultural wars, and Vietnam. By the conclusion of the film, no traditional order is established, a clear break from the conventional horror movie trope. The bad guy is not defeated, and Sally hardly escapes. The last shot of Leatherface wielding his chainsaw under the scorching sun is a good metaphor for the turbulent times. Things aren’t going back to the way they used to be, so to speak.
Poltergeist, meanwhile, was one of the first horror films I saw. It produced one of the most iconic American horror images, little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) pressing her hands to the screen of TV static and warning her family, “They’re hereeee.” Poltergiest isn’t as unsettling as TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre, and it often feels like a Steven Speilberg movie more than anything else (he did write the screenplay). It employs one of his classic tropes, something threatening the all-American family/burbs. Instead of a shark gnawing on victims at a seaside town, we instead have poltergeist terrorizing a middle-class family who built their house atop a Native American resting ground. I always thought of Poltergeist as a PG horror movie, but it does have some great, subtle scares. My favorite is when the mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams), is in the kitchen and turns around to find the chairs stacked in an uncanny manner. This scene doesn’t involve any blood, guts, or gore, but it works so well. Hooper knew how to show restraint. Even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has very, very little blood and guts.
There are plenty of great American horror films that have been released over the last 3-5 years. I mentioned a few of them via another post. It Follows, Get Out, It Comes At Night, Green Room, and The Witch are all worth watching. What I like about these films is an idea taken from Hooper’s body of work: sometimes, less is more and the visuals and sound, or lack of sound, can scare an audience a lot more than buckets of blood.
Over the last several months, I’ve been working on curriculum for a horror literature and film adaptation class, so I’ve been revisiting a lot of film theory articles and essays on horror, and while doing so, I’ve been musing about all of the recent interesting, memorable horror movies that have come out in the last two-three years. There is the old theory that horror does well during periods of national anxiety. Stephen King talks about this in his collection of essays on the genre entitled Danse Macabre. Probably the easiest example of think of is the last great period in American horror, the 1960s/1970s, which saw the releases of Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, Halloween, The Exorcist, Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among others. Out of all the films, I find Texas Chainsaw the most interesting, and upon re-watching it recently, I found it even more brilliant and more disturbing. I also realize now why the film is cited so much in countless essays on the genre. The low-budget film has no soundtrack, so instead, the viewer is confronted with sounds of flies buzzing, reports of violent stabbings or shootings that come through the radio in various scenes, and of course, Leatherface’s chainsaw. It is one of the most apocalyptic films I can name, and one that upends the norms for the horror genre, in that the traditional social order is not re-established by the conclusion. Sure, Sally lives, but Leatherface is not conquered, nor is his sadistic family. They all live, and the end shot is Leatherface doing a mad, frantic dance with his chainsaw beneath a blazing Texas sun. If there ever was an apt metaphor for the violence, upheaval and chaos of the 1960s/1970s, that film is it.
This brings me to the point I want to make: the American horror film genre is undergoing a renaissance right now, and it’s worth attention. Like Texas Chainsaw, Halloween, and Night of the Living Dead, many of the more interesting contemporary American horror films are indies. Specifically, I am thinking of It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, and the latest, It Comes at Night.
Like their predecessors from the 1960s and 1970s, the films also have social and political undercurrents. 2014’s It Follows deals with the perils of adolescent sex, and it can be viewed through a conservative or liberal lens, depending on your own personal political bend. 2015’s The Witch, set in Puritan New England, feels even more relevant in the era of Trump and the Women’s March because it deals with the power of female sexuality. Beyond that, however, it is one of the most atmospheric films I have seen in recent memory. This year’s Get Out is the biggest success of any of these films, and it smashed records for a black director. It deals with race in a nuanced way and addresses the hypocrisy sometimes evident in white progressives who often fashion themselves open-minded and liberal.
This brings me to the newest film of the bunch, It Comes at Night. After viewing it last night, I’m still thinking about it and frustrated by aspects of it. The film was released by A24 studios, which also released The Witch and 2016’s The Green Room, which I should include on this list, because, like the other films, it deals with the horror that comes from within/humanity. Like those other films, It Comes at Night is atmospheric and does not rely on blood and guts. The film is primarily set in a house and follows a family of three in a post-apocalyptic world. They wear gas masks, though we’re never sure why, if there is some contagion in the air. We don’t even know why society collapsed. We’re dropped in the middle of of everything. The family encounters another family of three, and by the conclusion, everyone turns on each other, raising questions about human nature and if we’d be able to pull together and survive if there was some global disaster. Parts of the film do capture the current moment in American society, especially our fear of the other, be it immigrants or people who may hold different viewpoints than us. You can even view the symbolism of the gas masks as a warning of some climate change catastrophe that is yet to come.
The film does not rely on gotch-ya scares, but instead the tone is set through creaky floorboards, sprawling shots of the forest surrounding the house, which also feels suffocating, and repeating images of a red door, which seems to symbolize the bridge between death and life. For the most part, we see everything through 17-year-old Travis’ (Kelvin Harris Jr.) eyes. We also witness his dreams, which are visceral and include boils and puss on his hands, black goo spewing from his mouth, and visions of his dead grandfather, Bud. This calls to question whether or not Travis is infected, and whether or not there is actually an illness, or if Travis’ father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), merely uses that fear to keep everyone in line.
It Comes at Night is a film that will stay with you after the credits conclude, and it is forceful in its statements about human violence. That said, I did need a little more to go on, especially regarding the contagion, if it was even real. The conclusion, meanwhile, can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I’m not going to give it away here because the film builds to it so well, beat by beat.
It Comes at Night follows a pattern, a new wave in American horror, one that doesn’t rely on blood, guts, and gore, but rather on establishing tone, mood, and atmosphere and not having a huge budget to do so. All of these films have a social and political undercurrent, and in that regard, they also mirror the last great wave of American horror cinema. There is something happening right now in the American horror film genre, and it’s worth paying attention to, especially since the future of the American political system, or the planet, for that matter, is uncertain.