Oh, the delicious discomfort that comes from well-crafted horror films. They turn the slings and arrows of everyday life into nightmare fantasies that trigger our anxiety buttons without mercy. The best of them break out of the box of predictability and push the unconventional limit until we’re over the edge of the abyss, hanging on desperately.
The best of the best do it while keeping us entertained, like Jordan Peele’s terrifyingly effective and atmospheric message movie “Get Out.” Just as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives” transformed the genre into panicky feminist fantasias, this becomes a mind trip of interracial mistrust.
Peele, making his directing debut, may be best known as half the Comedy Central duo of Key & Peele, but be assured this is not a Wayans brothers laugh fest with a few jump scares added. The focus is deep unease on the masterful level of Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter, with small splashes of ironic release. You need that after the cold sweat resulting from fear being mainlined into your spinal cord.
The suspenseful setup pulls us back to one of those tidy, ominous towns of Carpenter and Hitchcock, chilly, well-trimmed places where nothing bad has ever happened — at least, not on the record. A 20-something black man, well turned out but feeling out of place in this affluent, apparently lily-white territory, walks around lost. His girlfriend, unheard on his cellphone, gives him directions to her parents’ home, where she’s waiting to meet him. What happens next is classified material, but it shows that Peele knows how to shape a character, set a mood and surprise us in a single sustained tracking shot.
That unnamed community is far from the wooded mansion where Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young photographer, has traveled with Rose (Allison Williams), his girlfriend of several months, to meet her wealthy parents. Times being what they are, he’s uncertain if they’re aware he’s black, and, if it turns out to be a surprise, how they will react to the news. Rose, clearly a sharp cookie, explains her parents’ progressive attitudes, assuring him he’s not wandering into Trayvon Martin territory. But even sightseeing the endless forest along the road to their home feels foreboding.
When he meets her neurosurgeon father Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener), they are as nice and open-minded as can be, welcoming him like a dear, long-lost family member. In fact, it feels as if they treat him 10 percent nicer than anyone else they’ve ever met, a squirm-inducing sense of liberal overreach that increases when their weekend garden party introduces a crowd of their overzealously warm friends. And why do the hosts’ black groundskeeper and maid talk in a customized style of posh English with zero connection to the street? Peele gets bonus points for keeping things shadowy and making us wonder if Chris is just edgy and out of his league.
What happens during Chris’ visit should be discovered, not described. Brace yourself; this is upscale, darkly polished work. Peele takes the fright film beyond a clinical exercise in spookery and into strikingly original territory.
With unfussy compositions, crisp editing, a cast that captures every coldly fascinating twist just so and extraordinary human and political dimensions, “Get Out” twists racial tension into disturbing angles that multiplex movies generally ignore. Peele builds our pent-up emotions to a violent climax that’s equally horrific and cathartic. He reminds us how evil exists in the most benign circumstances, a curse as old as humanity’s belief in fables, and almost as compelling.