Jeff York

The Influence of “Get Out” and Its Limitations for Horror

The Influence of “Get Out” and Its Limitations for Horror
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Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a seminal horror film. Unsettling, witty, and hugely political. It was made with a great deal of respect for the genre, yet Peele also elevated frighteners too, making a film that became a genuine “water cooler” pop culture entry. For months, people couldn’t stop talking about its twists, shocks, and laughs, not to mention its bold theme that tackled the strain of modern racism evident in entitled white one-percenters. The writer/director even won an Academy Award for such a searing and pointed original “cause” screenplay.

So, of course, its success has become something that many screenwriters are now hellbent on duplicating. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps it’s the sincerest form of Hollywood too. Suddenly, horror and politics are mixing everywhere. The Purge film franchise, where a nihilistic American government sanctions the murder of its citizenry, is about to begin its second season as a TV series on USA Network. Ready or Not was a hit film this past summer showcasing devil-following rich folk getting picked off one by one for their insidious games. And The Hunt, a horror film about struggling Americans being hunted as sport was considered so political, Universal Pictures shelved it indefinitely when the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton coincided with its planned opening.

Lupita Nyong’o in Us

Of course, Peele himself had a huge hit this past spring with Us, a frightener that dazzled critics and audiences alike with its searing political commentary on our nation’s need to pinpoint an ‘other,’ be it people of color, immigrants, etc., and blame them for our society’s ills.

All of the films just described are sharp horror, certainly of the moment too, capitalizing on a lot of the familiar dread and distrust running rampant throughout the nation and our government. But with so many movies going political like that, it’s possible that this ‘sub-genre’ may have reached a saturation point in 2019.

Producers reading scripts today are likely to tell you they’ve had it up to their eyeballs with screenwriters trying to be the next Jordan Peele. For starters, no one can be him other than Jordan Peele, and more importantly, trying to duplicate his approach might seem contrived unless one is as deft a political or sociological editorialist in the writing as Peele is. Anyone in the business will tell you it’s always better to speak in your own voice anyway and not try to write something like that which sold last year or the year before that. And if you’re only writing a political horror movie because you want to sell a script, that’s not a good enough reason anyway. Unless it’s steeped in your unique voice.

Horror doesn’t have to be so “of the moment” or hugely political to be relevant to audiences today. A screenwriter can certainly comment on society, and that gets close to being political without being so overt, but there’s plenty of material to work within the genre without incorporating any blue state or red state thinking. And since the horror genre is so profitable and seems to be experiencing a real moment on TV as well as in film, it’s wise to remember the best practices of the genre if you’re sitting down to attempt such a script. Not surprisingly, these lessons are more of the timeless variety and continue to stand as universal in their appeal.

Shauna McDonald in The Descent

First, one great piece of advice for horror writers is to “write what frightens you.” Again, a lot of folks are terrified by what’s happening in Washington, D.C. these days, but what else keeps people up at night? What deep down in your core gives you the heebie-jeebies? Start with that.

Spiders, ghosts, monsters in the closet, stepfathers… they can all frighten, so what can you create from such universal experiences and truths? What phobia gets to you? Isn’t everyone a little claustrophobic? It’s one of the biggies for sure, so imagine how many people you’ll have responding to your horror story if you write about someone buried alive, or stuck in a confined space, or pinned down in a house they can’t escape. No one had to be a cave explorer to relate to 2005’s The Descent. Its terrifying premise started with getting lost in an underground cave and it had audiences sweating profusely long before the story’s underground predators showed up in the second act. If one writes about what they fear, chances are, there are many out there who can relate.

The second thing that horror needs to be is visual. It needs some sort of visual hook, a way to identify its evil entity. It can be a book character lurking in the shadows as in The Babadook. Perhaps it’s some sort of repulsive entity going after innocents like the creatures in The Walking Dead or The Thing. It can even be the side of a person that’s their evil Id, like in such classic tales as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Wolfman. With politics, the villains look like men mostly, and their everydayness doesn’t suggest horror nearly as well. Thrillers, for sure, but horror could use some more visually striking monsters.

Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Part of the problem with using contemporary politics as a catalyst for a horror story is that so much of what’s scary is the words that politicians throw around or tweet. Metaphorical ideas tend to work better in horror than verbiage that can be too on-the-nose. Granted, refugee immigrant children in cages are one hell of a horrifying visual, but reality like that is not going to make for genre fun as horror promises. Politicians come and go, but your screenplay must live forever.

Even Peele found ways in Us to comment on American xenophobia within his much more fantastical visual context, particularly by way of those creepily cloned stalkers going after Lupita Nyong’o and her family. It’s also good to remember that in the 1950s take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchersthe pod people were a metaphor for the Red Scare. Literal Communists might not have been as eerily effective. Metaphors make a greater impact on audiences because they have to decipher their underlying meanings.

The next thing that should caution screenwriters from being too political is that horror movies tend to vanquish the bogeyman in some way, shape, or form in the conclusion. With politics, it’s hard to kill a philosophy. Even if the baddies in The Purge are beaten back that night, there’s always next year. Satisfying as horror?  Sure, but a little less so than those films or franchises with more definitive endings.

Granted, franchises like The Conjuring, where the devil is the ultimate bad-ass villain, cannot entirely defeat the demon world, but they can set Lucifer back on his cloven heels some by eradicating a few of his minions. Even though that darn doll Annabelle keeps getting let out of her case in the franchise to raise more and more hell, she is always placed back in it by the climax of the given film.

Finally, here is the final ingredient that makes horror truly work, yet surprisingly, it’s often the very component that most genre entries fail to maximize. The story needs to place characters in danger that are worth investing in and rooting for their survival. If the characters are too dumb or too slow to realize the predicament they’re in, then audiences will not feel for them. The rest, after that, is just watching the slaughter.

Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th

The Final Destination series did very well keeping smart protagonists in mind. Granted, there was always a high body count in the very violent movies, but the intended victims were at least smart enough to know they had it coming and tried to act accordingly to prevent their demises.

Idiotic protagonists marred the Friday the 13th franchise as it moved past its original movie. Sure, the plethora of sequels made a killing at the box office, but the material has not stood the test of time due to us cheering for Jason Voorhees more than his victims. If anything, all those sequels produced more laughs than screams over the remainder of the 80s and 90s, and that likely wasn’t what anyone was going for when making those frighteners.

Horror has always been one of the most popular of genres, and it’s easy to produce for very little money, and yet can make millions at the box office. Finding novel ways to scare or at least new ways to tell the tried and true is probably going to be a lot easier, more fun, and less polarizing than politically-driven horror.  Just look at how fantastic Let the Right One In told a vampire story, one that just so happened to have a wholly unique antagonist in its 11-year-old female bloodsucker.

Yes, politics can be utterly terrifying, without a doubt, but as those producers will likely tell you, the horror genre has plenty of opportunities to pin an audience to a seat without having to draw inspiration from depressing nightly newscasts. Horror films should be fun, even if we can barely catch our breath.

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