Tony Black on Get Out and social commentary in the horror genre…
A romper stomper of a low budget hit, Get Out is the first breakout picture of 2017 and may end up being the biggest. Jordan Peele’s tense tale isn’t just an exercise in horror thriller theatrics, it’s also the first of four ‘social commentary’ horror movies the up and coming director has planned, which one hopes he’ll now get to make. How does ‘social commentary’ fit in the horror genre, however? What conditions need to exist for a movie such as Get Out to happen?
The simple fact is that horror, perhaps one of the most elastic genres in cinema, at its entire foundation is built on the underlying social and economic themes of our society. The best horror movies don’t just make you jump or make you scream, they make you think, examine and, without question, worry. Get Out is just the latest in a long tradition of terrifying, timely horror pictures with their fingers on a dark, devastating pulse.
One of the most prolific recent examples is The Purge trilogy from James DeMonaco. While the first film, simply titled The Purge, may have been primarily a home invasion thriller, the backbone of mythology underpinning the scares and violence speaks to a dystopian future we may be rushing towards; a world in which, for 12 hours on one night a year, any crime in the United States becomes legal and the population may ‘purge’ all violent emotion. If you’re rich or capable enough to stay alive, you’ll survive. If you’re poor or weak, you may fall victim to anyone at any time. The Purge‘s entire plotline posits a scenario where even wealthy, protected people fall prey to the chaos, but sequel The Purge: Anarchy explodes the concept out onto the streets where all kinds of concepts come into play – a key one being ‘murder tourism’, where Scandinavian psychopaths arrive in the US to stalk innocents dressed as the Founding Fathers.
What does such a movie suggest about society? Can we really exist in a world where a concept such as the purge could exist? The justification being that 364 days of the year we live in a peaceful, near-utopian society? The final film in the trilogy (not the franchise, as there’s more to come), Election Year, couldn’t have been more timely last summer. Throwing a conspiracy into the mix to use the purge as cover to assassinate a liberal, progressive Presidential candidate (not to mention a woman), it establishes the grand masters of the plot as a room full of old, white, conservative, rich men. Remind you of anyone in power right now? While The Purge as a franchise has its problems and detractors, it’s a trilogy where its jump scares, grotesque characters and vicious murder stylistics are pivoted on many timely questions about law, government, and the underlying nihilism of Western society.
Going back a little further, to 2005, take Eli Roth’s Hostel. That puts a different spin on the idea of ‘murder tourism’, with rather the tourists themselves as the victims of a conspiratorial business which trades off the seduction, abduction and subsequent eradication, of unfortunate young backpackers in the wrong place at the wrong time. While the movies don’t paint the Eastern European setting in any way a favourable light, and no doubt unjustly put a fair few inter-railers off their trip for a few years, the commentary underpinning Roth’s bloodletting is key; he’s interested in the naivete of, certainly here, boorish American kids happy to throw caution to the wind for mindless sex and drugs. It’s a cautionary tale but one that’s lost none of its relevance, even 12 years later in a world of GPS cell phones & social media. Even if Roth ended up including a pulpy, revenge ending in both Hostel and Hostel II to appease the masses, his pictures still hold key relevance.
You also can’t have a discussion about social mores in horror without touching on Wes Craven’s Scream series, which may now be over twenty years old but has lost none of its sharp, post-modern, satirical bite. Craven subverts and inverts a genre he helped, alongside creatives such as John Carpenter, by making who would traditionally be the victims the perpetrators. Why? In many respects, because they enjoy it. Scream and its sequels skew into slasher territory but share some common DNA in many respects with the youthful, uber-violent nihilism of more psychological fare, such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games or James Watkins’ Eden Lake. All of these films feature disaffected young people as the vicious hand of violence, taking a mindless glee out of horrendous suffering simply because they *can*. That says more about society than them. More about a world in which their social conditions have allowed them to become what, to many, would be ‘evil’.
Most of the strongest horror pictures which cover such territory don’t paint their work in such black and white terms. Evil is subjective. Monsters can come in many forms, whether they’re the B-movie 1950’s alien visitors, the skin-crawling invaders of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing, or even the pulpy interlopers from They Live, again all examples of horror touching on social themes. Human monsters? They’re a different beast altogether and in Get Out, we have the latest example of the twisted face of humankind helping to explore a much bigger, wider societal question – race.
Jordan Peele, in his debut feature, avoids too much of the politics visible in The Purge films, but certainly touches on the rich, white man idea, and how darkly white privilege can be corrupted. We live in an age where race is used as a means to many abhorrent ends, even by what is considered the most powerful country in the world, the land of the free, and Get Out is a perfect example of the glamor which we cast over ourselves in believing the deeper, darker prejudices of human nature no longer exist. That’s the unique power of horror as a genre; be it a slasher movie, a satirical slasher movie, a socio-political action piece, or a chilling psychological thriller – all of them can make the same point about our world, our society, and who we are as a species.
And what *is* that point? Perhaps that until we truly look in the mirror, and see who we really are, we may never embrace the better angels of our nature. Maybe one day, thanks to the horror movie, we may have the courage to glance properly at those reflections.