There were a lot of big movies in 2017, but in terms of cultural impact, Get Out was probably the biggest. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, it emerged as the most recent, but still rare example of a horror flick being carried by a black protagonist (Daniel Kaluuya). In 2014, Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson surpassed box office expectations with thriller No Good Deed. 2003’s Gothika with Halle Berry also gave me chills as I rooted for the Black woman to come out alive. But neither of these titles have also worked to offer an explicit condemnation of liberal racism and treacherous white feminism. The Purge franchise critiques a corrupt political system that is willing to kill marginalized groups for fun on a designated night of the year, but its meat is in cheap thrills and gore rather than serious critique. With Get Out, Peele pulled off a project in a new lane of its own. The most frightening aspect of the film was its willingness to stare down the communities that we’ve been encouraged to trust. Nevertheless, it's been a year since the film came out, and so far it looks like the rest of the horror genre isn’t ready to fall in line.
The rest of 2017 saw no such innovation in the horror genre. It stuck to tried and true figures like the killers in Leatherface, Jigsaw, and Cult of Chucky; teen-oriented slashers like Happy Death Day and Wish Upon; and white people battling the supernatural like Annabelle: Creation and the residents of Derry in It. Women were refreshingly strong leads in several titles. Gerald’s Game was excellent, and I’m convinced that mother! is to white women what Lemonade was to Black women. But horror was otherwise bland following up Get Out.
Heading into 2018, we are looking forward to a lot of the same. There is going to be yet another installment of the Conjuring franchise, this one about a nun. Strangers is getting a sequel, and Michael Meyers is back to trying to kill his sister in Halloween. There are lots of ghosts and aliens headed our way, but not many people of color. Apparently, horror is a genre still interested in maintaining its status quo.
However, it may be time to reconsider. Here’s the other thing that sets Get Out apart, it’s the first horror movie in seven years that has been such a strong performer during award season that it garnered a Best Picture Oscar. In fact, only six horror movies have ever even been nominated for the most coveted Academy Award. Scary movies are often overlooked for more mellow dramas when it comes to industry accolades, but Peele made the strong case for a movie that can do both. So far it has been nominated for two Golden Globes, four Oscars, and nods from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, The NAACP Image Awards, and the Critics Choice Awards. It has become a career-defining moment for Peele, and it’s only his directorial debut. I don’t think this is a stroke of luck. Horror is ripe for further exploration and more diversity— after all, it’s the only genre with a reputation for killing Black characters first — and both fans and critics are eager to see it.
Obviously, most of the horror movies released in 2017 and 2018 were written and filmed long before anyone could have predicted that Get Out would become the cultural zeitgeist that is was. And there were others that offered just as much in terms of social commentary, but fell short of capturing larger audiences. For example, Most Beautiful Island used horror techniques to ruminate on the treatment of undocumented immigrants, but was released independently. It also cast a white-passing Spanish woman (Ana Asensio) as the lead. In other words, it was a far cry from cataloging the violence that people of color experience even at the hands of well meaning white people. It is these frictions and fears that we need to confront the most. It is institutionalized oppression and its residual effects that keep us awake these days, not bumps in the night. Here’s to a 2019 that offers another horror flick of both our dreams and nightmares.