Writer-director Jordan Peele (of "Key and Peele") has confirmed that a famous Eddie Murphy bit inspired the title of his directorial debut. In 1982, Murphy posited race as a reason why people — white people — in horror movies stick around waiting to be terrorized. Black people, he suggested, would grasp that it's "very simple: There's a ghost in the house, get the fuck out."
Now Peele has made a horror film with an African American protagonist who is told at least twice, in no uncertain terms, to "get out" of his situation. Why doesn't he heed the warning? Because, as Peele told "Entertainment Tonight," the horror genre thrives on characters doubting their instincts, asking themselves, "Am I imagining this?"
In this film, the question that makes the protagonist delay and dither isn't whether ghosts are real, but whether racism persists in a seemingly enlightened and "color-blind" world. And, following simple genre logic — the threat in horror is always real — Peele answers in the affirmative.
Brooklyn photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has qualms about meeting the affluent parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), but she assures him that her folks are clueless but "not racist." On the Armitage family estate, Chris is a good sport when Dad (Bradley Whitford) maunders on about his admiration for Barack Obama and Mom (Catherine Keener) volunteers to hypnotize him out of his smoking habit.
But Chris can't help noticing that both the Armitages' household helpers are African American — and exhibit a weirdly placid, dead-eyed demeanor. When Rose's brother (Caleb Landry Jones) shows up posing and sneering like an extra from Deliverance, something's clearly wrong.
As a pure fright film, Get Out has failings. Peele undercuts his scariest images by punctuating them with overloud musical cues, and comic interludes involving Chris' best friend (LilRel Howery) detract from the tension.
But the film's true genre is dread-tinged social satire, and its depictions of everyday, unselfconscious racism ring true. Take the long, increasingly harrowing sequence in which Chris meets Rose's extended family: While most would no doubt insist that they "don't see color," their awkward, condescending interactions with him suggest that's pretty much all they see.
The chilling quality of these scenes relies on our sympathy with Chris, and the talented Kaluuya gives him an emotional transparency that puts us instantly on his side. Whitford and Keener convey delicious menace as natural-fiber-wearing, National Public Radio-listening types who reveal their dark sides by degrees. And, while Howery's riffing feels out of place in a horror film, it's a comic release valve the audience needs.
That's because the movie goes to some uncomfortable places, as well as some silly ones. Like The Stepford Wives before it, Get Out uses a fancifully exaggerated scenario to illustrate real social tensions. We may not recall the plot of that 1975 film, but the images of dulcet-voiced, robotic "Stepford" women endure. Similarly, Chris' interactions with the bizarrely distant, mannered African Americans he meets at the Armitages' won't soon be forgotten.
Many have argued that horror is an essentially conservative genre. It's all about rejecting the unknown as a mortal threat, about "getting out" of situations where we feel uneasy. But wariness is also a survival tactic, as Murphy pointed out, and acknowledging our fears can lead to understanding. A lot of white people feel the urge to "get out" whenever the conversation turns to topics like racism. Get Out makes us stay put long enough to ask why.