Pulling Horror Up by Its Roots: How Indie Filmmakers Like Jordan Peele Resuscitated the Genre

Lupita Nyong'o in "Us," Courtesy Universal Pictures

By Jordan O’Brien

When the movie started, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. As with every crisis, the point of no return arrives without notice. Just ask the dead that drowned with The Titanic.

Beside me, a tragicomic scenario was unfolding. A family, six chairs wide, had elected themselves Criterion commentators for the evening. One—apparently under the illusion that she was in her living room—reacted to the film’s suspenseful opening act.

“Don’t go in there, bitch!” the woman implored the character on the screen. “Why is she going in there?”

Like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” I sat locked in my prison, eyes glued to the screen. Too polite to say anything, and too transfixed by Jordan Peele’s mastery of cinematic form to move, I feared what my months-long anticipation for “Us” had built to.

But even Alex knew when to lose hope.

I made a calculated decision to switch seats during the film’s title card sequence. I knew I had found my match when I could no longer follow the conversation from that raucous family.

Although far left from center, I sank into this new seat reassured. Life—and Peele’s films—are too short to get upset over ruined beginnings.

Then, just as the plot crystallized, something behind me shouted.

“I could do for a hot dog right now!” it roared at the sight of a hot-dog stand.

My head whipped around as if it were yanked by a chain.

“Man, kill that bitch!” another squealed as the film—like my thoughts—became murderous.

The conversations intensified, and soon the rules of movie theater decorum were tossed out by the majority.

They laughed, they chattered, and they shrieked until the screen went black, sucking the carefully crafted tension out of each scene until they had filed out of the theater and walked into their other lives. All the while, I sat ceramically in that same seat, the critic among critics.

On the drive home, I described these people the way a doped-up Hunter S. Thompson might.

Only human-animals could behave so callously, I supposed. In their most primitive moments, I figured I had composed a portrait of their entire lives—and I resented what I saw. Because through that bitter memory, I learned a lesson I didn’t solicit—and one that betrays my instincts as a film-lover and filmmaker: It wasn’t worth going to see horror in the theaters anymore. For all its sweeping visuals, the movie theater was no place to watch something like “Us”—an intellectual piece that demands attention and quiet appreciation.

Then I realized I was being unfair. Like a wine connoisseur at dinner who stops at nothing to illustrate their ability to discern a Bordeaux from a Chianti, I had let the filmmaker in me assume that everyone in the room was on the same page.

In its own twisted way, this screeching torrent of screams, chatters and laughter bodes well for arthouse horror.

Evan Alex as Jason and Pluto in "Us," Courtesy Universal Pictures
Evan Alex as Jason and Pluto in “Us,” Courtesy Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele, one of the great minds working in the genre today, has lured mainstream audiences towards a cinema that champions ideas more nuanced than the monster between the bedsheets. Sure, films like “It,” “A Quiet Place,” and “Halloween” (2018) have their strengths and their weaknesses. But they are entirely different than “Us” and Peele’s first film, “Get Out,” which are more concerned with the social implications of the monster than the fear it inspires.

The fact that large audiences are flocking out to see these films at all is encouraging. “Us” made $71 million on its opening weekend, and stands just behind “Get Out” as the fourth highest grossing horror movie of all time. Combined, they’ve raked in $350 million domestically.

With a following that wide, Peele may yet restore horror’s rightful place in political fiction.

This subject arrives at a precipitous moment in our nation’s political discourse. To some, the confluence of art and politics triggers cries about “liberal Hollywood” and the supposed propaganda it disseminates. But this criticism only surfaces in response to themes of identity politics. While feminism and racial inclusivity are unacceptable under this logic, implicit criticisms of religion, toxic masculinity and capitalism are not.

The most publicized examples tend to be directed towards Disney, as evidenced by the coordinated backlash against “Captain Marvel” and the Star Wars franchise. But horror has also borne the brunt of these criticisms in recent years. Jordan Peele, a filmmaker who publicly acknowledges the political undertones of his films, has been the target for such attacks.

Daniel sinks in Jordan Peele's "Get Out." Courtesy Universal Pictures.
Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out,” Courtesy Universal Pictures

“Get Out” was decried as “racist” and “anti-white” by a small, but vocal group of users on Rotten Tomatoes. In a National Review piece, Armond White calls “Us” a marketing strategy to “sell Black Lives Matter tickets” to the “Woke Generation.” He criticizes Peele for “obviously” casting his actors “for their dark skin tone,” adding that “colorism” is nothing more than “an insidious ploy.”

Similar criticisms appeared when Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone launched last month. The series begins with an episode that continuously criticizes the Second Amendment, so one shouldn’t be surprised. Titled “The Comedian,” the pilot features a stand-up comic (Kumail Nanjiani) who quickly learns that telling political jokes on stage is objectionable to his audience.

For the show, it’s a moment of self-awareness. But this critique is ironic. Both The Twilight Zone and the horror genre have always been political.

Still from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), featuring Conrad Veidt as Cesare and Lil Dagover as Jane
Still from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) featuring Conrad Veidt and Lil Dagover

Jon Towlson, author of Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from ‘Frankenstein’ to the Present, argues in his book that the marriage of political fiction and horror cinema originated in 1920 with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The film, which follows a manipulative showman and his murderous somnambulist, uses political allegory to criticize the German government for its role in sending thousands to their deaths during World War I. Inspired by German Expressionism, a contemporaneous art movement that used distorted shapes and sharp angles to emphasize the artist’s subjective thoughts over objective reality, the film reflects the anxieties of its day. In the film, an authority figure uses mind control to beguile another into murdering his enemies. This fictional parallel with reality would have resonated with German audiences who had just emerged from the devastation of World War I.

Caligari would inspire multiple films in the same stylistic canon, including “Nosferatu” (1922), “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) and “Cat People” (1942). Each of them would reflect disparate cultural and political anxieties under the veil of genre storytelling.

But German Expressionism is not the only movement that illustrates horror’s deeply-rooted ties to political commentary.

Towlson argues that “cycles of the horror film” mirror the “cycles of history.” The American monster movies that emerge in the 1930s, for example, criticize the moral panic of the Depression years— “an era where social problems were blamed on genetic makeup.” Similarly, the misogynistic slasher films of the 1980s coincide with Reaganomics and an era of reactionary neoconservatism.

But perhaps the most relevant cycle to discuss in relation to Peele is the Cold War, and how Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, used horror to attack prejudice, question authority and scrutinize human nature.

Rod Serling, creator of “The Twilight Zone,” Courtesy Museum of TV & Radio

Serling, a screenwriter who viewed “writing and storytelling as political acts,” emerged in television amid an era of increasing commercialization and censorship. Indeed, this was the middle of the Nifty Fifties, a transitional period marked by the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy.

In 1956, an episode Serling wrote for the show Playhouse 90 attempted to allegorize the murder of Emmet Till. As Serling described it, the producers “chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” Dismayed by the experience, he would turn to science fiction and horror to elude these creative restrictions.

The first episode of The Twilight Zone aired in 1959, at the height of Serling’s creative powers. Working fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, he had finally found a space where he could write exactly what he wanted to.

In the series’ pilot, “Where is Everyone?”, a man’s seeming isolation in a small town becomes a metaphor for atomic age anxieties. Waking in a world where everyone has vanished, Mike’s (Earl Holliman) story is an obvious metaphor for the end of human civilization. But the conclusion of the episode turns a cliched metaphor into a parable—one that criticizes an expanding military-industrial complex that routinely places the advancement of technology ahead of human interests. In what would become the first of many twist endings, it is revealed that Mike’s anxious wanderings were actually part of a simulation for space travel. Having collapsed from the mental toll of the experiment, Mike is pulled from a metal vessel by military personnel and resuscitated. A stern-faced colonel declares the exercise a “success,” bragging to teeming reporters that the nation’s efforts to reach the Moon had reached a milestone. “Next time it will be for real,” he warns Mike as he is carried away. Despite humankind’s physical and emotional limitations, the military-industrial complex presses on.

In “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” Serling shifts to the domestic politics of suburban America—a setting idealized by shows like I Love Lucy. After a passing meteor produces an unexpected power outage, an idyllic neighborhood devolves into warfare and paranoia. Friends and family turn on one another as they strive to root out an alien invader they suspect to be in their presence. When the chaos finally peaks, the episode cuts to two figures watching the pandemonium from the top of a hill. They are the actual alien invaders. Using technology that precipitated the outage, they fueled the neighbors’ anxieties, prejudices and superstitions to create a panic. A metaphor for McCarthyism, the episode suggests that the supposed security of suburbia does little to protect people from their own festering suspicions.

Still from "The Eye of the Beholder," Courtesy CBS
Still from “The Eye of the Beholder,” featuring George Keymas and Jennifer Howard, Courtesy CBS

Serling explores the idea of implicit prejudices further in “The Eye of the Beholder,” an episode about a woman trapped in a hospital bed. Covered in bandages, she is told by surgeons that she looks horrific, and therefore, cannot be allowed to interact with other people until she is cured. Sequestered from others, she resembles a hostage in a prison camp. All the while, the audience never sees the faces of any her captors. When her bandages are finally removed, the surgeons cringe with disgust. But as the cloth falls from her face, a perfectly normal looking woman appears. The surgeons, by contrast, bear grotesque deformities. Here, Serling illustrates the flawed logic of social exclusion. The barriers erected by societies are often arbitrary, existing only to protect our existing biases.

These episodes illustrate how political horror should work. Though moralizing, Serling’s messages never feels didactic. Part of this success stems from how the series presents itself. Compared to its contemporaries, which typically identified the types of stories audiences could expect each week, The Twilight Zone deliberately kept its genre ambiguous episode-to-episode.

Kynan Dias, a film professor at UNLV who frequently lectures on The Twilight Zone, says that the show labeled itself uniquely for its time.

“As much as other people would like to put it into a certain box of horror, fantasy or science fiction, the show says its not about any of those things, or that it is about all of three at once,” Dias says.

This lack of clarity promises that each episode will be original and promotes an illusion of reality. Strengthened by Serling’s presence as the omnipotent narrator, the show suggests that the moral of each episode stems from an event that actually happened—albeit in another dimension.

The show’s social commentary supports this reading.

“Memorable horror is more oriented towards a concern that’s in the culture at the moment,” Jason Edmiston, a film and media specialist at UNLV who studies the intersection of film and politics, says.

A film like “Dracula,” which accommodates a host of different interpretations, “is successful because it’s so malleable,” he adds.

As illustrated through “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and The Twilight Zone, horror shifts in tandem with the politics of the day. These transitions invariably occur during tumult, creating what Towlson identifies as a correlative relationship between horror and social collapse.

“It is in periods of crisis, moments of national trauma and ideological conflict when social collapse becomes a threat,” he writes. Here, “radical viewpoints are most likely to find an audience—which perhaps goes towards explaining why horror films enjoy their greatest popularity in these times.”

(From Left to Right) Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex and Lupita Nyong’o in “Us,” Courtesy Universal Pictures

This sentiment describes what’s happening with the genre today. A host of indie arthouse auteurs are reimagining horror through experimental stories and innovative filming techniques. Told through a sociopolitical lens, these films explore the subconsciousness of their characters and criticize racist, patriarchal institutions in society. They are deeply skeptical of the family unit and regularly encourage its destruction. While New Horror is defined by the work of Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, it includes many others with indie acclaim—directors who work on a low-budget with studios like A24 and Blumhouse Productions.

“Us” is merely the latest film in this canon—albeit an extraordinarily lucrative one.

Because historical patterns only crystallize in retrospect, this movement’s message is difficult to ascertain. However, it is surely a reaction to the political volatility that precipitated the presidency of Donald Trump. The superhero zeitgeist and the increasing commercialization of Nostalgia Cinema also play a role in drawing auteurs towards indie filmmaking.

Although the movement’s returns were limited prior to the release of “Get Out,” the tremendous financial successes of Peele’s films illustrate that there is a market for New Horror and the political fiction it champions. Mainstream reactions to upcoming films in this canon will determine its trajectory.

Madison Curry in Jordan Peele's "Us," Courtesy Universal Pictures
Madison Curry in Jordan Peele’s “Us,” Courtesy Universal Pictures

When I returned to the theater the following weekend, support for the film persisted. It raked in another $33 million, and the turnout that night reflected it. There were families with young children and couples with old faces, but nobody screamed about hotdogs in the open air. Then there were people like me, back for more.

Somewhere, through these composite viewings of “Us,” I found that experience I lost at the premiere. I missed those days when I was the only one at the arthouse screening, alone in the front row with the truest genre I had ever known. But I figured I’d welcome everyone else in on the secret as well.

When the picture appeared on the black screen, I leaned back and laughed with the chorus.

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