The Horror is Not Where You Think it is

I don’t normally do movie reviews on this site, but this film was related to a question I had about a particular genre of writing, the horror genre.

I rented Get Out, (2017), nominally a horror film. Normally I wouldn’t, as I do not enjoy the genre, but this one had good ratings and it had Catherine Keener, who I love, and lately I’ve been thinking about what constitutes  horror. The result was surprising.

The writing in this movie is so appalling, it’s risible, but hey, that’s Hollywood.  The acting is quite good in places, interspersed with cringeworthy mugging. Photography is overall strong, music above average. Directing is clunky but perhaps it was supposed to be parody of directing in the horror genre. (Don’t go into those woods!). Sets are LOL ridiculous, especially the enormous Connecticut mansion deep in a secluded wood.  Non-sequiturs and red herrings abound. It’s not a great movie, craft-wise.

But my main interest was in identifying the “horror” elements, to answer the question, what makes horror horrifying?  In this case the horror arises when bad guys threaten to take possession of your mind (via hypnosis – of the Hollywood kind) and then occupy your body (by some kind of hand-waving psychosurgery).  So the horror is fear of being possessed, not by evil aliens as the pod people were in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but by ordinary folks who simply want your body because it’s better than what they have. The pleasant old rich people around you could be alien “others” whose bodies are failing so they want yours. Watch out for them!

I like that premise, but truth be told, it wasn’t horrifying because it wasn’t believable. It’s just not a fear that any normal person has, I think.  So as a horror movie, this one didn’t work for me.

There’s mandatory squirting blood at the end and a satisfying conflagration (though not a satisfying intellectual conclusion), but most of the movie is slow and mysterious, actually more of a mystery or thriller than a horror.

But there’s another layer to the movie, one which makes me think that it is not actually supposed to be a horror movie at all. Rather, it is an allegory, an indirect invocation of slavery, without explicitly naming it. Slavery was the real horror. But who would watch that movie? Get Out is successful as a superficial horror ($5m to make, $17m gross so far). So let it be that.

How subtle is the secondary slavery theme? Not very. The idea is clear from the start that black and white people are inexorably alien to each other. That theme seems oversimplified for today’s world though it justifies some pretty good ethnic humor. And plenty of people are afraid of other colors so maybe I’m naïve about that.

Once you get plugged into the secondary theme the movie becomes much more interesting. A silent slave auction is shown but not explained. The side-kick’s humorous conspiracy theory has hidden meaning.  I think the movie tries to invoke the mental state of slaves the way Colson Whitehead did (Underground Railroad), but it fails in that, because the modern day context and characters fight against it. But as a symbolic allegory, I think the movie works and it gets extra points for trying to be educational.

My favorite bit was how the white girlfriend goes from loving partner to evil other by putting her hair into a pony-tail.  Watch out for that!

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