Horror is a unique genre of film. There are many different kinds of horror movies, and there are plenty of fans who are mystified by it and are drawn to its unpredictability. It is a genre that is all about subverting audience expectations; once you think everything will be alright or something is meant to happen, there is then a sudden twist that leaves you shaking in fear. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for instance. The audience is introduced to a female protagonist, only to have her be killed 40 minutes into the film. This is what made horror filmmakers like Hitchcock, Wes Craven, and George Romero so significant. They were able to keep the tension hanging in their movies to a point where the audience couldn’t take it anymore, release that tension, and then catch them off guard. Jordan Peele is the latest big-name director to be considered a master of horror, proving that he too is capable of pulling off this technique. However, there are a lot more reasons as to why Jordan Peele is a special kind of horror filmmaker.
An interesting case about Jordan Peele is that he did not actually break through the mainstream in horror. He first became well-known for his comedy show Key and Peele with co-creator Keegan-Michael Key. It seems unusual that someone would make their way working from comedy to horror, and it seems just as unusual that someone who became known for his comedy would even be considered a master of horror. But there is a technique that comedians share with horror enthusiasts in creating their work, and that is subverting audience expectations. Just like a comedian would create a scenario that results in a jolt of shock within the viewer, a comedian is meant to tell or show a joke that has a punchline in the end. In order to do so, they need to keep the audience invested until that moment of surprise. For example, the skit “Zombie Attack” shows Peele in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, and Key is dragging their friend who got bitten. Peele takes his shotgun and kills the bite victim, only to learn from Key that he got bit by a raccoon, not a zombie. “Continental Breakfast” offers a similar twist, where Peele’s character is revealed to have been staying at the hotel longer than thought; the ending shot is even a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Who knows what forces are at play to make Peele’s character stay for so long, but the ludicrous scenario could be just as horrific as it is funny.
While Jordan Peele can subvert audience expectations well, this isn’t the only thing that makes him a standout horror filmmaker. He is also an expert at incorporating humor into his work, as seen numerous times through Key and Peele. Humor is defined as a quality that appeals to a sense of the ludicrous; while it is used very often in comedy, it itself is not comical. Jordan Peele creates stories based off of the racial issues plaguing the country and incorporates humor in them, albeit in a very different tone. This is evident in his directorial debut Get Out. In this film, a black man named Chris travels with Rose Armitage, his white girlfriend, to visit her family for the weekend. He discovers that her family kidnaps black people to turn their bodies into vessels for their older white friends. This process came to fruition after Roman, the family’s patriarch, lost in an Olympic track race to Jesse Owens. He believed Owens won the race because he was black, and in doing so completely ignored the fact that Owens trained just as long and hard as everyone else.
The humor in this whole brain transplant process is that the Armitage family believes black people are superior to white people in every aspect because of their race. The family, along with all of their white friends, constantly make remarks about how much more athletic black people are. They tell Chris about how strong he looks, and they even tell him about how “cooler” they are; he becomes aware of their constant idolization of famous African-Americans like Barack Obama and Tiger Woods. Although they seem overwhelmingly positive, they are very subtle microaggressions. Nearly every white person in this film expresses these in some manner, and to the viewer, it is horrifying how often it is shown.
There isn’t a single villain in Get Out, which is what makes it so different from your typical horror movie. It has been cited as an example of social thriller, a genre that uses suspense and horror to point out instances of oppression in society. In Get Out, the Armitage family and their associates are all the villains, and their sheer size is comparable to how prevalent this type of racism exists in our society. It is horrific because it is omnipresent in real life, unlike a zombie apocalypse or demonic puppets; we see this happen all the time (or even experience it first-hand, unfortunately) which makes it hit far closer to home than any monster flick. This is how Jordan Peele is able to scare his viewers, and it has arguably created a new kind of horror.
Us is also an example of a social thriller. While the film doesn’t tackle racism the way Get Out did, it still shows a story about oppression. Each person has a doppleganger known as a Tethered, an exact copy of them created by the government. They are forced to live in depressing underground tunnels re-enacting their every movement, while the people above the surface get to enjoy life as usual. It can be argued that the Tethered are a metaphor for those who are poor, forced to live in destitute conditions beneath the happiness and prosperity of those above them. It’s humorous that the government would purposefully create exact clones of American citizens since advanced cloning is nearly impossible, but it speaks to a darker truth. The government created these conditions for them and chose to abandon them. In the end, it’s unclear who the real villain is. Peele forces viewers into witnessing these horrific instances and makes them think about it.
Jordan Peele’s movies don’t stick to the script that so many other horror filmmakers follow. He can obviously scare the viewer easily, but instead of one monster or supernatural occurrence, the villains in his movies transcend beyond one entity. They are broader ideas like racism and institutional oppression, things that many people encounter in the real world. Jordan Peele is able to take those grounded real-world issues and create humorous yet horrifying stories that revolve around them. His convoluted imagination is what makes him so special like other famous horror filmmakers, but it’s his method in creating social commentary that makes him stand out from them. Peele might only have two films to his name so far, but he is well on his way to cementing himself as one of horror’s all-time kingpins.
(Photo Credit: Rich Fury, Invision/AP)