Get Out: The Stepford Wives remade as a race-themed horror comedy
Get Out is the first feature film by writer/director Jordan Peele, one half of the popular American comedy duo Key and Peele. A horror film made by someone with a background in broad comedy and political satire might be expected to be a lighthearted horror parody, but that is not the case. While comedy is part of the storyline, it is often gallows humour, and sparingly distributed in an improbable yet genuinely chilling horror fantasy plot.
The story begins as the film’s protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is preparing for a trip to a remote, affluent lakefront community to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Chris is black and Rose is white; this fact is essential to the plot, as is the race of every other character in the film, as soon becomes apparent. Chris’ friend Rod (played by comedian LilRel Howery), who serves as his ultra “urban,” wise cracking sidekick and occasional comic relief throughout the movie, jokingly warns Chris against visiting such a bastion of white affluence, and advises him to be sure not to be influenced and become suddenly bourgeois. This casual joke takes on more sinister meaning as the situation progresses.
At first, Chris’ visit is far from threatening, played as a modern comedy of manners as Rose’s parents make friendly but awkward and embarrassing attempts to reassure Chris that they are racially tolerant. The couple are believably played, by veteran TV actor Bradley Whitford and the brilliant Catherine Keener, as generally well-intentioned but slightly overbearing and entitled. Even the arrival of Rose’s brother, a rude lout whose treatment of Chris borders on aggression, is dealt with by Chris as an unpleasant social encounter rather than a real threat. The one disturbing aspect of the household is the presence of a black couple, Georgina and Walter, who seem to be devoted household servants of the Armitages, but whose manner and behaviour is decidedly odd.Mrs Armitage, a psychologist who offers hypnotherapy to help patients stop smoking, chides Chris rather patronisingly about his smoking habit, and urges him to accept her assistance. He politely refuses; but things take a frightening turn when, during a private conversation, she hypnotises Chris without his realising it. After a terrifying and inexplicable experience, he finds himself waking up in bed, unsure of whether his memories of the episode are real or part of a nightmare.
As Chris is trying to piece together the random incongruities in the Armitage household, friends and relatives begin to arrive for an annual outdoor party. Chris faces more and more overt and indiscreet comments about his race as he tries to remain polite. He is startled when the one black guest unexpectedly flies into a panic and begins to shout at Chris to get out while he can – an incident the family later explain away. From here, the actual danger to Chris is gradually revealed, in a strange and unexpected form. The suspense grows as Chris belatedly recognises the danger and attempts to escape, leading to a gruesome and unconstrained orgy of violence, which culminates in a sharp bit of indirect racial irony (the one scene that caused the most audible and delighted reaction from the cinema audience) and brings the film to a conclusion.
The film’s similarity to The Stepford Wives, which even the director acknowledges, is evident and apparently deliberate, even though Get Out chooses to unexpectedly diverge at one point from the Stepford storyline. In both, the concept is openly implausible, but that isn’t important. If The Stepford Wives may be called a paranoid feminist nightmare, in which women’s worst but most unlikely fears about men turn out to be true, Get Out portrays the parallel fears of black Americans about their white neighbours. In both cases, the threat is something impossibly farfetched; the horror comes from the feeling that, given the state of relations between black and white, or between men and women, it verges uncomfortably close to plausibility. Peele brings that discomfort to the surface nicely.
As a straightforward horror story, Get Out succeeds. The cast is well-chosen, Peele’s direction is excellent for a first attempt, and the suspense is built carefully and effectively. Even the bizarre details of the horror plot are managed more or less believably. Where the film fails is in the actual structure of the story, which is riddled with inconsistencies, gaping holes in the plot, and what seems to be a mid-point shift from one story to a completely different one. Some of the explanation provided for the evil which threatens Chris was so flimsy, and so severely at odds with the evident point of the story, that it suggests an unforeseen, last-minute script change may have thrown the entire plot off kilter. Unfortunately, these lapses detract badly from what is otherwise an interesting and unconventional production.