One of the most successful movies of 2017 was Get Out. Written and directed by former sketch comedian Jordan Peele, this movie became a commercial and critical success by grossing $254.8 million on a $4.5 million budget and receiving four Academy Award nominations.
One of the most interesting questions surrounding Get Out is its genre. People have called Peele’s multilayered film a horror movie, a satire, and the Golden Globes nominated it in the “Best Comedy or Musical” category. But Peele himself has defined it as a social thriller, a previously uncommon term. Peele doubled down on this term when he curated a series about his inspirations called “The Art of the Social Thriller” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
So, what is a “social thriller?” In contrast to “message pictures” that deal with societal issues before imparting a message — such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which also influenced Get Out — social thrillers ask more questions than they answer. They deliver genre thrills to audiences by depicting exaggerated situations — a satanic plot to take over the world, a zombie invasion — but also deal with repressed societal issues such as patriarchal oppression of women and racism in intellectual ways that a more “prestigious” film wouldn’t dream of doing. The social thriller is a fascinating category of film, and studying its roots can make you appreciate it and the films that come after it even more.
Like most American phenomenons of the early 21st century, the social thriller as Peele has defined it has its roots in the late 1960s. Two of the films that he has cited as influences on Get Out came out in 1968. The first one is Rosemary’s Baby, which Peele once said was probably his favorite horror movie. That film is a masterpiece of subjective filmmaking that makes the audience share the perspective of a woman who begins to suspect that her annoying neighbors have sinister plans for her. Peele has noted its influence on Get Out in terms of how its opening sequence sets the tone of horror and how Rosemary’s gender puts her in jeopardy, just as his hero Chris in Get Out becomes placed in jeopardy due to the fact that he is African American. Peele even includes a clever homage to Rosemary’s Baby by naming the inventor of a sinister procedure in his film Roman after the leader of that earlier film’s witch coven.
The other 1968 proto-social thriller that influenced Get Out is Night of the Living Dead. That movie is groundbreaking for, amongst other reasons, being one of the first mainstream horror films to have an African American lead. Ben, played by Duane Jones, is consistently shown to be smarter and more resourceful than the white characters with whom he interacts. He even defies the stereotype that African American characters always die first, only to be killed in an ending that still has the potential to make your blood boil.
If nothing else, Get Out is proof of the glories that arise when artists build on the accomplishments of their predecessors. Peele took the subjective filmmaking of Rosemary’s Baby and made the racial subtext of Night of the Living Dead text in Get Out. He also proved that the social thriller is an excellent genre at making people frightened and making them think about society’s injustices. It is an accomplishment that should not just make audiences excited for what Peele will do next or to rediscover the movies that inspired him. More than anything, Peele’s achievement makes you fascinated by what the filmmakers who will come after him will do with what his art will give them.
This semester, the IU Cinema’s series Race Swap explores the early roots of Get Out by presenting three cult films which similarly examine and exploit racial ideology. The first of these films, Watermelon Man, screened in January. The second movie, The Thing with Two Heads, will be shown on February 2, while the third movie, Change of Mind, will conclude the series on February 23. Race Swap is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive, the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society, Cinema and Media Studies, and the IU Cinema.
Night of the Living Dead will be screening at the Cinema on February 8 in conjunction with the International Arthouse series and the Wounded Galaxies 1968 series, which is part of the larger festival Wounded Galaxies 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach. To learn more about Wounded Galaxies, you can visit the festival’s webpage here or read Joan Hawkins’s recent blog post detailing the events here.
Jesse Pasternack is a senior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed six short films.