Jordan Peele: Horror’s Last Hope

With only two films under his belt, Jordan Peele was quick to claim his place in the ranks of horror filmmakers. A well-deserved place, as his debut film Get Out was a 2017 Best Picture nominee and the winner of Best Original Screenplay, and his follow up, Us (2019)crushed opening weekend, making it the largest domestic opening weekend for an original horror film. 

Creating a modern horror hit is hard. Everything’s been done, critics don’t care, and fans are stuck in cult-classics. Peele’s success comes at a time of a much-needed renaissance within the horror genre. Following Get Out’s release, came the ultra-successful It (2017) reboot, Hereditary (2018) continued the hope of improved horror, John Kransinski turned heads with A Quiet Place (2018), Netflix debuted The Haunting of Hill House (2018), and Jamie Lee Curtis reprised her iconic Halloween (2019) role 40 years later.  

It is clear audiences are getting sick of the reliance on gore or shock-value; gallons of fake blood and sub-par acting only go so far. Peele’s films don’t just scare you, they challenge you. Get Out was a different type of chilling, it was thought-provoking. Peele made the film for less than $5 million, and it boasted an impressive $250 million worldwide gross. 

So how did Peele quickly become the Hitchcock of his generation? Called the New Master of Suspense, of course Peele would cite Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960) as monumental to his filmmaking journey. Peele attributes Hitchcock to taking audiences to the darkest place the human psyche has been, and suceeding in “pulling the rug out of the entire idea of what it means to tell a story”.

 Get Out was life-changing for Peele, changing him from a comedian known for a close to flawless Obama impression and that skit, to an Oscar winning filmmaker. Peele wrote 40 drafts of Get Out before feeling satisfied, making sure to fill it with thoughtful Easter eggs and meaningful social commentary. Look, there’s nothing I love more than falling down a Reddit thread rabbit hole after viewing a film, so Peele’s a godsend. Peele creates content that is simply entertaining, but has a new layer to pull back and analyze after any and every viewing. 

With Get Out, Peele invited us to embrace a young black man’s perspective, which went on to launch conversations about race. Not to mention, "The Sunken Place" has become a pop-culture staple, the place Kanye West was accused of visiting, after expressing his support of Donald Trump. Peele refers to “The Sunken Place” as a term we can use to aid the discussion of “what appears, to me, to be black people choosing an ideology that is racist against black people”. 

Get Out was so ground-breaking, audiences didn’t quite know what to categorize it as. Peele told Rolling Stone: “I’m such a horror nut that the genre confusion of Get Out broke my heart a little. I set out to make a horror movie, and it’s kind of not a horror movie…As a horror fan, I really wanted to contribute something to that world”. And maybe that’d why he geared up for his second film; While Get Out, was more so a psychological thriller, Us is nightmare inducing. Us, according to Peele, is similar to Get Out in that it is inspired by the many subgenres of the horror he loves, but an attempt to take steps into unique territory. Still, Peele provides his audience with a multitude of themes and interpretations to take from the film. 

It’s no secret that a classic horror movie trope is that the black character (yes, usually the only black character) is inevitably the first to die. Peele attributes this to the fact that a black presence may make racial themes a bit too obvious, making it hard to ignore the whiteness of the space in which the film exists. He went on to tell Rolling Stone:

 “It’s important to me that we can tell black stories without it being about race…I realized I had never seen a horror movie of this kind, where there’s an African-American family at the center that just is. After you get over the initial realization that you’re watching a black family in a horror film, you’re just watching a movie. You’re just watching people. I feel like it proves a very valid and different point than Get Out, which is, not everything is about race. Get Out proved the point that everything is about race. I’ve proved both points!”

Peele cites Night of the Living Dead (1968) as a monumental moment in film, featuring a black protagonist and posing as an allegory for racial discussion, “My favorite thing about this movie is it’s about something important without actually being about it.” Peele believes the film came “mad early,” with Get Out coming nearly 50 years later, fighting the same fight. 

Peele also references Candyman (1992) as a masterpiece and “complete gsame-changer”, saying the what-if-the-killer-was-a-black-man shift was “not okay, but in many ways an arrival of what I was waiting for”. For Peele, horror films never served his identifty, which was “confusing and unfortunate” for him growing up as a child who loved horror films but wasn’t represented. And fittingly enough, Peele is now officially writing and producing the 2020 Candyman reboot.  

Things seem to come full circle like this often for Peele, such as in his latest finished project, The Twilight Zone revival. Peele admired the original, and it is fitting, as he praises Rod Sterling for doing the things he sets out to do: “pointing things out through allegory about our society, sparking discussion, he allowed us to realize things about ourselves through entertainment”. When asked what spearked his interest in a reboot, Peele says “I hear once a day it feels like we’re in the Twilight Zone…I felt like it was time”.

Horror films enable a place where both audiences and filmmakers can discuss the most uncomfortable parts of human existence. The more voices added to the conversation, the more Jordan Peeles we’ll find, the more barriers we’ll break, and the more society and culture will progress.  Because horror, more often than not, reflects the times we live in. 


Image Credit: 1, 2, 3