Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a visceral viewing experience, which has made it- for me- difficult to write about. The creeping terror of the film is difficult to watch, but, as I watched, I was struck by the role scientific racism played throughout the film. Scientific racism is predicated on the belief that whiteness is evolutionarily superior to non-whiteness, and that races are genetically predisposed to have different strengths. Usually, white people are presumed to have mental acumen, while black people have physical prowess. It is opinion issued under the cover of being fact. When we think of racism, we often conjure images of vitriolic passion. But we overlook the role that dispassionate racism- under the guise of reason – plays and the harm it causes as a structure of oppression embedded in science.
Get Out is predicated on this very danger, represented by the “comfortable” white liberal, the person who tells you they voted for Obama, but still, in their marrow, believes that racial differences are scientifically preordained as hierarchical. The concept of “good” and “progressive” whiteness plays into the churning evil within the film and the distress we as viewers feel while watching. Whiteness, in the hands of the Armitage family, becomes a tool as effective and as malicious as Dean’s scalpel and Missy’s tea cup.
Clown hysteria may seem relatively new, but it is hardly a modern phenomenon. For many audiences over the centuries, the clown’s seemingly joyous face has detracted from something more sinister—some darker, hidden quality in the character. As a type, the creepy clown comes to us from centuries past. Like Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT, the clown is the monster that escapes a prior age, returning once again to stalk our nightmares.
The slasher flick is absorbed in the heroine’s experience of incessant trauma. But unlike the genre’s other characters, she is the one who does not die: she is the “Final Girl.” A victim-hero, she is resourceful and intelligent and ultimately vanquishes the masked murderer.[i] A slew of recent horror films like The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015) and It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) have taken up the archetype seemingly in celebration of the female-empowering figure. After all, horror is one of the few genres that enables its female protagonists to “kick ass.”
And on the surface, It Follows, a 2014 Cannes Film favorite, seems like just another in a long line of likeminded slashers. The film centers on 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student from the Detroit suburbs. After having sex with the outwardly charming Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay is drugged, bound to a wheelchair, and is told she now carries a sexually transmitted curse. An amorphous monster—it—will follow her everywhere she roams, and although no one else can see it, for Jay, it could appear like anyone. It is painstakingly slow but inescapable. Temporary respite occurs only by passing it on through sex with somebody else. In a way, the plot feels like an urban legend of sorts, and the formula obeys many of the same rules touted by Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream (Wes Craven, 1996): “There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex.”
About halfway through Maniac (also called Sex Maniac, for no reason), a minor character gets an accidental shot of adrenaline and performs a monologue that has to be seen to be believed: “Creeping through my veins! Pouring in my blood! Oh, dash the fire in my brain! Stabbing me! Agony!” It goes on and on. The magic of 1934’s Maniac is that, despite its fifty-minute runtime, this isn’t even the craziest scene.
Is the craziest scene when the suicide victim comes back to life, licks her lips, and then is instantly forgotten by the rest of the cast? How about the cat-breeding next-door neighbor (a man in drag) complaining in total deadpan that the scientist next door keeps doing “queer” things like making too much noise and bringing dogs back to life? Perhaps it’s the big ending, which shamelessly rips off an Edgar Allan Poe story for no reason whatsoever.
A 2015 Mexican-French production co-written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, Desierto is an intensely interesting film. Its stark plot tackles head-on one of the issues that has convulsed the US (and defined its relationship with its southern neighbor) since the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. Desierto is a horror film about immigration—specifically an illegal crossing from Mexico into the US, and it thus joins the equally provocative Undocumented (Chris Peckover, 2010) in what I’m sure is poised to be a newly emergent preoccupation of the horror genre.[i]
Desierto’s plot is simple—perhaps too simple (one of its flaw). A group of Mexicans are covertly crossing the border when their truck breaks down and they are left to head in the direction of the US on foot. Enter Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his dog, Tracker, who picks off the members of the group one by one until only Moises (Gael García Bernal) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) are left.