Get Out: Invasion of the Brother Snatchers

June 14, 2017
Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD

Volume 34, Issue 6

In Get Out, director/writer Justin Peele’s provocative debut, the bodies snatched are African American (mostly robust males); the cannibals of consciousness are white residents of an affluent Baltimore suburb, where the living is easy and the politics fashionably progressive.

THE MEDIA ON MY MIND

Monsters of every stripe have stalked across world screens since the birth of cinema. The first Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released in 1908. Universal Studios’ “gothics” of the 1930s and 1940s reflected the brooding expression of German silent-era horror classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Universal’s sovereign children of the night included the eponymous Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Wolf Man (1941).

The late 1940s and early 1950s featured monstrously mutated creatures, living and prehistoric-the giant ants of THEM! (1954) and Godzilla (1954)-who eventually became a Japanese national treasure. Malevolent aliens also saucered across the celluloid firmament in The Thing From Another World (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), etc.

The “otherness” of these monsters was curiously comforting. One was safely scared, ensconced in the battered seat of the local Bijou, popcorn and Mars bar in sweaty hands. After all, the mayhem was being wrought onscreen, not on the audience; the Man From Mars was obviously a big galoot in a monster suit-and, hey, it was only a movie!

The late 1950s brought doubts about America’s prosperity at home, and power abroad. As the Cold War heated up, the Red Menace spurred a tidal wave of dread across the nation. Hollywood suffered the blacklists, but the dream factory also reaped profit from processing McCarthyite paranoia in one of the genre’s finest shockers-Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Previously, the movie monster had been safely confined to Transylvania or outer space. In Body Snatchers the creature assumed human form and stepped across your threshold. Thereafter he could be anyone-your postman, neighbor, family member-even yourself!

Loss of identity by supernatural or pseudoscientific means is a perennial theme of the horror genre, particularly in zombie and vampire pictures. I’ve speculated elsewhere that the vampire’s depredations evoke the lure-and dread-of submersion in the blissful “oceanic consciousness” of early infancy that Freud inferred.

In Body Snatcher’s spin on this fatal urge to merge, residents of a California town are transformed into replicants by an unidentified alien menace. While sleeping, victims are replaced by simulacra growing in an eerie “pod,” secretly placed nearby by earlier recruits. Those yet unzombified are mercilessly hunted down by the “pod people” for conversion worse than death.

In Get Out, director/writer Justin Peele’s provocative debut, the bodies snatched are African American (mostly robust males); the cannibals of consciousness are white residents of an affluent Baltimore suburb, where the living is easy and the politics fashionably progressive.

The hero, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is an insouciant young African American street photographer on the brink of fame. He’s fallen for lithe, lily-white Rose Armitage (Alison Williams), who’s about to introduce Chris to her parents in the “burbs.”

Chris seems eminently comfortable being black in a nation marred by persistent bigotry above and below the radar. He’s apolitical, utterly nonconfrontational. Rose seems to love Chris for himself. His race is such a non-problem that, over his mild objections, she hasn’t told her parents who’s coming to dinner.

Chris’s best friend is Rod (Lil Rel Howery), an airport security officer who fancies himself a master of detection. Rod is a street-wise trash-talker, after the rowdy/obscene fashion of ace black comics (eg, Moms Mabley, Red Foxx). He’s generically suspicious of white folks; he rattles on about women like Rose who yearn to turn black men into sex slaves.

From the start, the trip to suburbia is pervaded by an uncanny sense of wrongness, heralding Chris’s descent into a macabre abyss. Get Out accomplishes its satisfying creeps through adroit camera work, masterful editing, and finely chiseled dialogue.

It also cunningly references signature scenes from earlier movies: inter alia mad doctor pictures, midnight cheapies with a radical political bias like Night of the Living Dead (1968), and the malevolent suburbia sub-subgenre (eg, The Stepford Wives [1975]). Peele also honorably borrows visual strategies from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Alfred Hitchcock’s particularly macabre benchmark, Psycho (1960).

Rose’s car kills a deer. A white policeman arrives, asks to see Chris’s license (he wasn’t driving); Rose’s politically correct objections feel obscurely incorrect. One registers the cop’s knowing look as he takes off. The couple is relieved, but one’s disquiet ratchets up a notch.

Peele uses a medium shot to frame the tableau of the parents’ greeting Rose and Chris at the door of their mansion. The device is pure Hitchcock, coolly distancing us from Dean and Missy Armitage’s effusive warmth. (Dean is a neurosurgeon; Missy a no less successful psychiatrist.)

Dean jocularly calls Chris “my man,” says he would have voted for an Obama third term; emphasizes that an African American gardener and housekeeper are “family.” Chris is mildly put off by Dean’s heavy-handed liberal pieties, and Missy’s scoffing at them. But going along to get along is his modus vivendi. He diffidently accepts the Armitage’s blandishments-Missy’s offer to eradicate his smoking addiction by hypnosis. He awakens from a session with her several hours later, cured and unpleasantly dazed.

In fact, Missy has drugged and hypnotized Chris to render him docile before an incipient rape of consciousness. (Our profession doesn’t come off well in horror flicks: the congenial town psychiatrist of Body Snatchers is one of the first converted; he then uses his pre-podded persuasiveness to seduce his neighbors into joining the alien collective.)

Next day a klatch of well-heeled neighbors arrive for an annual party. They are strangely enamored of Chris. Their fulsome praise of negritude rings ominous. Chris is particularly extolled for athletic and sexual capabilities, which are completely implied. Only the owner of a photography gallery admires Chris’s art rather than his notional prowess on the playing field or in the bedroom.

The only other African American at the party is the boy toy of an unctuous woman twice his age. Like the Armitage’s black staff, his speech is oddly stilted, the discourse of a Pinter character-or a Plantation butler from central casting. When Chris snaps his photo, the youth screams “GET OUT!!” and faints; the episode is ascribed to epilepsy caused by the camera’s flash.

Chris texts the photo to Rod, who recognizes the young man as a brother from the hood who went missing months ago. Even paranoids have enemies: Rod’s loopy suspicions about white knavery and black sex-slavery have been spot-on. Rose gives Chris an icy smirk when Chris pleads with her to leave. He’s promptly knocked out, awakens this time lashed to a chair in Dean’s subterranean operating suite.

A TV tape reveals Dean’s gonzo Mengele project: for years he’s abducted black people and ablated their identity, leaving only a buried shred of the ravished self. Rose has occasionally served as spider-lady bait for a series of black lovers’ repurposing into sex slaves. Dean mainly implants the personae of aging relatives and, presumably, other members of this foul cabal within his black victims’ savaged brains. Chris is sold to the blind gallery owner in an eerie silent auction (the film’s most disturbing sequence). He plans to take photographs through Chris’s accomplished eyes.

You’d think Dean would be using stereotactic lasers and such in his dirty work. But, in homage to previous mad-doctor gore-fests, his technique is Grand Guignol low tech: bloody bonesaws and buckets awash with slithery grey matter.

Horror fans enjoy a hapless hero’s escape from one or another sinister dark dwelling. Stoned devotees are equally pleasured when escape proves illusory. Peele freshly deploys standard visual and musical tropes to plant you solidly on the edge of your seat, as Chris liberates himself from mental and physical bondage. He stumbles out of the Armitages’ charnel house to be rescued by Rod. The Armitages are killed, but in the process so are their decorticated slaves.

Mainstream “problem pictures” like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) probed racial and religious bias with big stars and respectable budgets. Studios like Warner Brothers took big chances, but the profit motive couldn’t be ignored. Viewers could be instructed, but not overmuch upset. So a vexing social issue was explored through the vicissitudes of a single character. The conclusion was suitably upbeat, leaving viewers with the comforting impression that since the problem was outed, it was somehow solved.

Trashy midnight fare could float far more subversive notions without convenient resolutions-precisely because no one cared about these Z-pictures besides lunatic buffs like yours truly. George Romero’s cult classic, Night of the Living Dead (1968), took Marx’s critique of predatory capitalist greed to its logical conclusion. People are the ultimate commodity, so why not eat your kid?

Autres temps, autres moeurs. Horror and science fiction fare are now immensely popular. Mixed couples now are staples on TV commercials, implying a gentler, kinder America. Get Out was made on a budget as slim as the midnight cheapies of yore (4.5 million dollars, chump change by current Hollywood standards). But its production values are solid, and a large, diverse public was already in place to enjoy them.

Chris is a believable hero for African American viewers, unlike gross phallic Blaxploitation caricatures like Shaft (1971). Against genre expectations, it’s a resourceful black man who outwits and survives the horror this time, not a screaming-mimi white virgin.

Conversely, Get Out tutors unknowing white viewers about the subtle slights and humiliations that are still the sour daily bread of African Americans. Liberal whites may also get strokes from knowing they would never be capable of the Armitages’ repulsive bigotry. (In fact, Peele insinuates that unacknowledged prejudice still haunts many liberals.) In any case, whatever one’s ideology, the film is terrifically enjoyable and often very funny.

However, the movie’s felicitous ending is a bit too tidy. It feels analogously flimsy, particularly in a Trumpworld awash in rancorous bias against immigrants and American people of color. As it turns out, an alternate ending was filmed in which Rose survives, and Chris is jailed for her shooting and the general slaughter.

Rumor has it that Hitchcock wanted Suspicion (1941) to end with Cary Grant’s slippery charmer strangling Joan Fontaine’s wealthy spinsterish wife, instead of affirming his redemptive love. The happy/sappy ending imposed by RKO rings singularly hollow because of the director’s sinister intent, which inhabits Suspicion.

Peele-or the studio-chose the Hollywood ending to avoid stirring up trouble on either side of the racial divide, but I doubt Get Out is going to send blacks to the barricades or whites flocking to join the ACLU. Movies don’t move us in this collective fashion, nor should we expect them to: “. . . they [movies] capture the very age and body of the time.”1 No small matter!

Disclosures:

Dr. Greenberg practices psychiatry in Manhattan, New York. He continues to publish frequently on film, media, and popular culture. For many years, his cinema column appeared in Psychiatric Times. He has appeared frequently on national and international network and cable television programs including Good Morning America, Today, CBS Evening and Sunday News, PBS, CNN, Showtime, and BBC-TV. Please address communications to Dr. Greenberg at HRGSMES@AOL.COM.

References:

1. Shakespeare W. Hamlet. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html. Accessed April 11, 2017.