We like social commentary horror, yay! And I’m interested in what Jordan Peele has to say as he turns from comedy to horror, and I’m interested in any movie that takes a huge social topic like racism and turns it into horror. Then the whole thing got clouded by the press this movie got over receiving 100% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and being drawn into the whole identity politics maelstrom, so by the time I went to see it I confess to being a bit guarded and skeptical. But I’m happy to report that, if we separate the actual movie from what it all supposedly means to the politics of our day, we have a quite good, not great, topical movie that is fun, entertaining and has something to say.
The deal is that Chris, black boyfriend to white Rose, is going home to meet her parents in their home outside Atlanta. He is nervous because she hasn’t informed her parents that he is black. Once there, he encounters two creepy, seemingly lobotomized black servants, as well as a lot of white liberal assurances of non-racism [“I would have voted for Obama for a third term!”]. The mother conducts hypnotherapy from her home, and on the first night, ends up hypnotizing Chris against his will. He wakes up in bed the next morning.
The parents have a garden party with lots of older white people, but also a young black man married to an older white woman, who disturbs by not acting “black” in any way. The flash of a camera causes this guy to freak out. Chris finds that his phone has been unplugged, so the charge wears down. Chris finally tells Rose he wants to leave, and as they’re about to… well, you suspected the parents held some terrible secret, right?
It’s possible to have some quibbles that the social criticism is rather scattered and not fully-formed into a solid, cohesive statement, but then again, this is not something we normally ask of our other socially-conscious horror. Dawn of the Dead [Romero version, obviously], brilliant as it is, still only tosses out a thin connection that we have become consumerist zombies and we hail it [justly] as a masterpiece. It’s enough for horror to just point out a connection and raise issues to think about, and it would be unjust to expect this film to supply a complete treatise when we’re happy with other horror movies to have anything on their mind. And this one does as required: raise a bunch of questions, provoke a bunch of thoughts, and ask us to consider racism as a form of horror, itself an interesting and worthy achievement.
As for the filmmaking, however, we can quibble freely. The film itself is quite fun, satisfying and entertaining. The tone is confident and the whole thing is remarkably assured for a first-time director. The writing, however, is another story. The tension in the film doesn’t so much build as simmer at 30 before suddenly hitting 100. There are a series of micro-events [and micro-aggressions] that are all creepy, but I was surprised when Chris suddenly wanted to leave, especially given how this would appear to his hosts. Similarly, where most films start with the slightly creepy and move to the intensely creepy, this movie jumps from zero to quite, quite creepy, then keeps it there until suddenly it jumps again, to overt horror. So there’s no gradually-rising arc. The characters, also, are paper-thin. Chris is a gifted photographer, full stop. The parents are affluent white liberals whose friendly fronts cover a disregard for black’s lives. Rose is the same. There’s a brother who is almost shockingly underdeveloped. Yes, I know, lots of horror films have undeveloped characters, but many of the better ones do, and I’m just pointing out that there is a lot of room here for character shadings that would make the whole thing a richer story. Still, I’m not sure this was meant to be a richer story; the whole thing is about issues of race, and its characters exist to make points in an argument first and exist as real-seeming characters second. Which one might mind in a less provocative movie, but this movie exists to provoke, and I don’t have a problem with that.
I saw this is a theater where the audience was half black, and the biggest laugh the movie received was when Rose said of her father: “He’s not racist!” And that alone, having a movie that allows us [and blacks in particular] to laugh openly at the naïve simplicity of a statement like that, is what this movie is really about. And on that count, is does what it needs to do, something no other movie is doing or has done, and that itself is an achievement. Plus it’s funny and entertaining. So, a win.