African-American photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) agrees warily, but with good humour, to spend a weekend in the country with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and her family – though experience convinces him it’s likely to be an uncomfortable experience. En route, the couple have a traditional horror movie omen experience as a deer dashes across the road to provide a jump-scare and a minor car accident, which leads to a more social realism-based chill as they encounter a smoothly hostile cop who barely conceals his racist assumptions by asking Chris (who wasn’t driving) for i.d. and racial-profiling him into a shoulder-mike.
Writer-director Jordan Peele is known for comedy, so the opening stretch of the film – complete with wiseass, jive-talking, more obviously comic black best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) who keeps needling the more assimilated but still savvy Chris about the choppy waters up ahead – could almost be a hip rethink of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or a Meet the Parents movie with a race angle. But once Chris gets to the isolated Armitage homestead and starts feeling jittery around very polite but distinctly off white folks – not to mention a couple of extremely odd black servants – it becomes obvious that we’re in horror film mode, albeit with a helping of social satire after the manner of The Stepford Wives, The ‘burbs or Society. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a silver fox neurosurgeon proud of supporting Obama, Mom (Catherine Keener) is a soft-spoken hypnotherapist who scrapes a spoon in a cup to put patients (or anyone) under the fluence and Little Bro (Caleb Landry Jones – the whitest non-albino actor currently working) a simmering ball of jovial hostility eager to try ju-jitsu moves on the new guest. There’s a certain back and forth as Chris is spooked by tiny little details – the fixed smiles of servants Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), a house party of rich white geriatrics (and one very strange token black guy) who are patronising but also fetishise and envy Chris’s skin tone, a mysteriously shut-off basement (a ‘get out’ siren in itself) – but then talks himself into letting things slide, even when he’s sure his girlfriend’s mother has unethically mesmerised him on the pretense of curing his cigarette habit.
A generation ago, exploitation cinema learned the lesson of April Fool’s Day that things should never seem more benign than they are – even The ‘burbs, which hesitates, confirms our worst suspicions – and so it’s accepted that whatever Chris suspects, the truth is likely to be much, much worse. The specifics of what the Armitage clan is up to are teased out – delivering something that flirts with the premises of vintage schlock like Black Friday (which is not a film about race), The Thing With Two Heads (which is), Brain of Blood or Nothing But the Night, albeit with a Trayvon Martin-era spin that genuinely stakes out new territory. Kaluuya, who’s impressed in UK TV like The Fades and Psychoville, is a likely breakout star – charming, unassuming and charismatic, which makes this a film as much about race envy as modern slavery – while Williams plays a very tricky role to the hilt, and Keener, Whitford and Jones are memorably creepy-genial as nightmare incarnations of whiteness. It’s a funny film, smoothly assembled in the Blumhouse fashion, and radical in its ideas not its plot. In comic horror mode, Peele isn’t minded to take things as far as, say, The Stepford Wives (original, not remake) so the ending isn’t a complete downer like the precedent-setting 1968 finish of Night of the Living Dead (which still made jaws drop when I last saw it, screened to a predominantly black audience at the Ritzy Brixton).
Horror films from the silent era on have depicted the scary racial other as black (or Asian) – the meaning of the title White Zombie is that Black Zombie isn’t news – and there’s a long history of pop-eyed, whisper-voiced, sinister black voodoo priests (cf: The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Believers) or literal and figurative spooks (Live and Let Die, Sugar Hill) but this might well be the first film to trade on the established fact that, in Black Lives Matter/2nd Amendment rights America, African-Americans have good grounds to be terrified of caucasians with hunting rifles, martial arts moves or brain surgery equipment and a moment in the climax when a police car shows up is anything but comforting (despite a witty earlier scene where Rod tries to explain his suspicions to a trio of sceptical black law-enforcement officers).