We’re only three months into 2017, but it’s safe to say that the sleeper sensation of the year will be “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s horror film that manages to be both fiendishly clever and soberingly on-point about racism, white supremacy and liberal hypocrisy.
An enormous box office success that has earned more than $130 million — putting it in this season’s top five movie openings, alongside such behemoths as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Logan” — “Get Out” also serves to illustrate some enduring truths about the modern-day movie business, and one or two new ones.
Most obviously, Peele’s directorial debut proves the abiding popularity of horror movies, which are one of the few genres left that reliably get viewers into actual theaters. Last week, the Motion Picture Association of America, in its annual Theatrical Market Statistics report, found that the most significant increases in moviegoing last year occurred among viewers ages 18 to 24 and non-white audiences: “Get Out” lives in the sweet spot of those demographic trends, having done well with ethnically diverse viewers ages 25 and younger, who are otherwise notorious for being umbilically connected to their devices. “Get Out” epitomizes the kind of film that demands the viewer put down the iPhone and see a movie with a crowd, its jump scares and sudden laughs exponentially magnified by the vicarious reactions of one’s seatmates.
What’s more, “Get Out” continues a time-honored tradition of escapist mass-entertainment genres being used to address serious issues. In the 1950s, Cold War paranoia suffused the sci-fi creature feature “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” just as the Western “High Noon” served as an allegory for McCarthy-era political courage. Meanwhile, “All That Heaven Allows” and “Imitation of Life” embedded timely critiques of middle-class snobbery and the psychic wounds of racism within the soapy conventions of domestic melodrama.
Most recently, we saw the Oscar-nominated science-fiction film “Arrival,” which engaged the subjects of immigration and xenophobia in nuanced ways. But genre-bending in the name of serious issues has been particularly dominant in the indie-film space.
The upcoming monster movie “Colossal,” starring Anne Hathaway, uses the imagery from classic kaiju monster movies — personified by Godzilla and his outsized brethren — as an allegory to explore addiction, sexism and self-definition. “Personal Shopper,” starring Kristen Stewart, interweaves elements of Gothic horror and Hitchcockian suspense in its depiction of attenuated modern life; “Raw” makes a stab — literally — at linking the outlandishly gory, bloody and alienating effects of body horror to ideas about sexual awakening and feminine power.
There are a number of reasons why horror continues to sell, including the voracious appetite of teenagers for whom experiencing stark terror in a risk-free environment is the stuff of life. Horror films are also relatively cheap to make, they don’t need movie stars and, as Washington-based festival programmer and consultant Jon Gann observed recently, they’ve benefited from “the rise of the Cons.” He’s referring to Comic-Con, Fantastic Fest and other genre-specific conventions that, along with social media fan communities, offer distributors easy access to an enthusiastic market and advertising target.
Still, as exhilarating as it is to see a new generation of filmmakers exploiting horror, monster movies and sci-fi as ripe allegorical formats, it would be a shame if genre became the only means for filmmakers to channel political anxiety and awareness. With midrange adult dramas increasingly being concerned with personal portraiture and psycho-emotional catharses, sharp, thematically pertinent movies are in danger of being relegated to metaphorical kitsch, however smart and well-executed.
If American cinema has a venerable history of husbanding genre conventions to resonant real-world concerns, it also has a canon of serious dramas deeply inscribed with and informed by the social forces of their eras. A time when the political campaign of a sitting U.S. president is being investigated for collusion with Russian operatives presents the perfect opportunity for a taut, modern-day conspiracy thriller on a par with “The Manchurian Candidate” or “Seven Days in May.”
As news platforms and partisan agendas proliferate with each passing day, the audience is primed for a blistering critique of political and media culture reminiscent of “Network.” Imagine a claustrophobic chamber piece like “12 Angry Men” or a searing drama like “On the Waterfront,” or a satire in the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges, set amid present-day polarization, embubbled identities and mutual misunderstandings.
Maybe we need a Just-Plain-Good-Movie-Con, proving to Hollywood that an audience exists for films that capture our current zeitgeist and confront its most unsettling truths. After all, the under-25-year-olds who are flocking to “Get Out” aren’t going again and again just because it’s scary; they’re going because it’s intelligent, adroitly crafted and utterly attuned to its times. Put another way: The filmgoers who are keeping movies alive may be young, but they’re not stupid.