How Jordan Peele’s Get Out Made Low-Budget Horror Oscar-Worthy

Get Out is the first truly great western horror movie of the 21st Century. It’s Rosemary’s Baby for the post-millennial world, a social horror story that is seethingly angry, terrified, terrifying, and frequently hilarious. I work with horror for my day job—normally prose but often cinema too—and Get Out is one of the finest horror movies I have ever seen. Hell, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It absolutely deserves every single one of its Oscar nominations—deserves to sweep the board, in fact. Whether it will do so is dependent on how fond the Academy is of World War II (odds are, far too much) and or sexy mermen (hopefully very), but even getting to this stage, to these awards? It’s unprecedented in about a dozen different ways.

That unprecedented success is particularly impressive when you consider its production history and realize that Get Out is the perfect expression of the same cinematic equation behind movies such as Insidious, Ouija, The Conjuring, and The Purge.

Get Out was produced by Blumhouse, who are pretty much the evil geniuses of western horror cinema. The company, founded by Jason Blum only nine years ago, operates according to a very specific model, which is explored in fascinating detail in this episode of Planet Money. When applied to Get Out, you can see not only how this model works as well as it does but also the ways in which it helped make Get Out so extraordinary.

Firstly, the smallest possible number of locations are used. Most Blumhouse movies tend to happen in one primary location, with a light seasoning of others sprinkled in. Two of my favourites, Oculus and Hush, show just how well this strategy can work. Oculus focuses on a brother and sister confronting the evil mirror that killed their parents in their old childhood home and, ridiculous sounding premise aside, is incredibly good. That single location ramps up the confrontational elements of the movie as the characters clash over whether anything that’s happening is real. It also allows writer/director Mike Flanagan to unstick time in a way that makes the movie even more disturbing. Looked at one way, the frequent appearances by the siblings’ childhood selves are simply flashbacks in the usual sense. Looked at another way, the flashbacks function as diegetic elements as the mirror uses the characters’ own pasts, and futures, against them. Likewise, Hush utilizes its isolated cabin setting as a means of seesawing the power dynamic. The movie starts with the killer very much in charge, but the battle for control of the house soon becomes intertwined with the battle to survive his attacks.

You see the exact approach used to masterful effect in Get Out. The gorgeous house in the middle of nowhere works on three different levels. It’s an evil hideout, the sort of place that shares a spiritual zip code with the cabin from The Evil Dead or the titular last house on the left. It’s also a massive tell, a clue to just who this family are and what they’re up to: entrenched, fortified, hiding from the world both because they are scared of it and because know that what they’re doing is an abomination. Finally, Chris’ introduction into that environment becomes a way of ramping up the unease even further. He doesn’t fit there and he knows it. He doesn’t fit there and we know it, and instantly wonder if knowing that puts us on the same page as the film’s antagonists.

Beyond the limited setting, there’s the relatively small cast and amount of speaking roles. Oculus has four primary leads with a couple of ancillaries. Hush has even fewer, with barely any dialogue for most of its run time. Get Out uses these limits in a subtle, smart way that not only sticks to this model but drives every character and every major theme. Pay attention to the way Dean delivers the line about voting for Obama again if he could. Look at the way Rose talks the cop down at the start or the terrifying moments where Georgina is briefly cognizant. Most of all, look at the Sunken Place sequences where language becomes a weapon and a prison. Get Out uses language in so many ways, all of which channel into our sense that the entire movie is a terrifying joke that everyone is in on—except for Chris, who serves as the punchline. The entire movie is a linguistic puzzle, the stakes of which build and build, all leading up to that pivotal moment on the stairs and the most terrifying line about car keys in modern cinema history.

The next element of the equation is the effects budget, or lack thereof. The aforementioned Planet Money episode has a fun anecdote about this and underscores just how strictly Blumhouse sticks to their budgets—but, again, Get Out is a great example of making this work. The small-scale effects budget means that the film is as trapped as Chris himself. The portrayal of violence—and that third act is brutal—is close-up, untidy, and realistic even as the movie rides the cathartic wave of Chris finally gaining the upper hand. There’s no sudden heroic action movie moment here, no invincible characters. Just one innocent man trapped in a house with a group of very human monsters and the terrible things he has to do in order to escape them.

This formula combines in different variations, time and again, to make Blumhouse movies something close to the new grindhouse cinema. Their ability to balance relatively tiny budgets with massive potential returns means they can move faster, and be more prolific, than larger studios. It also means that when something doesn’t hit, it doesn’t cause too much damage, and when it does, the film tends to be a runaway success—witness the Paranormal Activity series, the increasingly massive web of Conjuring spinoffs, or the fact The Purge is moving on to its fourth movie and first TV series.

But for me, the Blumhouse model is at its best when it finds a way to turn these built-in limitations and restrictions to its advantage, and I don’t think it’s ever been done better than in Get Out. Every element works in formation with the others to create a brilliant, multilayered film that, somehow, still adheres to basically the same set of rules as a mid-90s straight-to-video B-movie, even while playing on the audience’s familiarity with those rules. It’s staggeringly impressive work, and I desperately hope that the film and its director, Jordan Peele, are recognised for that at this year’s Oscars and beyond. Even if that doesn’t happen, seek it out. It’s a modern classic.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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