In the 2017 film Get Out Rose (who is white) invites Chris (her black boyfriend) to visit her parents at their country home. The trip involves an ominous drive through the countryside (which includes the death of a deer when it runs into their car). The road trip acts as a buffer zone separating the familiar city environment from the creepy weirdness surrounding Rose’s family and their home. Like Southern Comfort strange ‘otherness’ lurks just around the corner, within your own national boundaries. Rose’s brother plays the banjo on the doorstep, echoing the banjo-playing redneck child in Deliverance. As with other horror films, like The Hills Have Eyes and Race With the Devil, strange and frightening things happen in rural backwaters. These are places where normal rules do not apply. The journey takes the central character from the world we know into a world that is alien. Like the twisting mountain road in The Shining it makes it far from trivial to simply get up and leave the new environment once problems begin to emerge. This is exacerbated by poor mobile phone coverage and battery issues in Get Out and the extreme winter conditions in The Shining.
There are other themes at work here: the black male invited by his white girlfriend to visit her parent’s. This has immediate echoes of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Get Out uses this point of tension, and race politics, to explore the awkwardness of meeting a partner’s parents – a universal fear used here to set the tone for a horror story. This forces the audience to question if the strangeness Chris faces is: racism, his paranoia, or something else. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the visit to the parents provides a context for social commentary, while in Meet the Parents it provides a comic situation.
Once at the house, Chris witnesses the bizarre behaviour of the black maid and the black groundsman. Their unsettling conformity and their culturally white middle-class behaviour sets off warnings in Chris’ mind. There are hints here of a dark family secret, like the family abuse featured in Feston, the surrogate robots from The Stepford Wives (1972), or brainwashing and forced, indentured labour.
The strangeness hints at the possibility of a conspiracy. This places the story within another thematic framework: the conspiracy story. When Chris explains to Rose about the unusual behaviour of the black housekeeper and the black groundsman, he comes across as paranoid. This is further heightened by his friend, whose outlandish claim is that white women keep black men as sex slaves. Within the conspiracy story narrative these insinuations appear absurd or crazy, but some aspect of them eventually turns out to be true.
The penultimate reference point, or influence, is the sci-fi element to the story (a medical conspiracy story along the lines of Coma). Without wishing to spoil the plot, this phase of the story is glossed over at speed, probably because it doesn’t make much sense when analysed.
Finally, the story goes into escape mode; the breakout story. Here the audience witnesses Chris’ desperate escape from incarceration. He is in a kind of underground hell, an Inferno, striving to get back to the surface, back to the normal world. This hellish place could be the den of freaks, like the psychotic family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974); the monstrous ‘other’ (like Rose’s family they also live in a rural backwater and view outsiders without ethical or moral consideration). Or, an escape from a prison or prisoner of war camp.
The Inferno, a journey into hell followed by an attempt to escape from it, provides a staple plot structure for the horror genre. Unsuspecting victims become ensnared in a hellish other world, and attempt to free themselves from it.
Get Out plays with audience expectations, switching between genres, building and subverting one trope after another, creating a series of plot twists and turns. This disorientates the audience: what point of reference should we be using to make sense of and judge this story?
Unfortunately, once the full scale of the family’s plan is revealed Get Out feels much less creepy and frightening. And while the ending provides a cathartic resolution, it reverts to self-knowing cliché in order to achieve it.