At this year’s Academy Awards, the two movies that most of the internet is talking about, even arguing about, are horror movies.
On Sunday, director Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out. Guillermo del Toro won Best Director for The Shape of Water, which also took home the prestigious Best Picture award. Both movies are horror movies, albeit ones that approach the genre in dramatically different ways. Still, there is no bigger lover of monsters than del Toro, and no director captured the fear of living as a black person in America better than Peele.
Horror has long been misunderstood as “shorthand for cheap, unreal, bad,” writes Jason Zinoman in the New York Times. But countless artists have used horror to frequently poke and prod at what society deems comfortable or uncomfortable, what’s acceptable or unacceptable: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein examined the danger of technology during the Industrial Revolution; Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist came after Charles Manson, cults, and a time “of visible and influential Catholic intellectuals and artists”; and Wes Craven’s teen slasher Scream satirized mainstream establishment in the way only ‘90s kids will recognize.
Truly, horror is all about looking at contemporary times through a horrific funhouse mirror. And through Get Out and The Shape of Water, horror again proved to be most versatile, and most relevant genre for a society that is one year deep into an uncertain, stubbornly nationalist era.
It could have been another costume drama, like Phantom Thread or Darkest Hour, that swept the ceremony. Or it could have been the intimate love story, represented this year with Call Me By Your Name. But it was horror that dominated the conversation: The Shape of Water won in categories often reserved for “real” movies, while Get Out was the popular favorite.
In Peele’s Get Out, a black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) meets the parents of his affluent white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time. The trip ends in terror as Chris discovers Rose’s family harvests black people for their own personal immortality. In del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a mute custodian (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a mutant “fish man” from the Amazon (Doug Jones), whom she attempts to rescue from captivity.
Get Out is much closer to a traditional horror movie than Shape of Water, as Get Out plays up classic horror tropes while re-jiggering them to explore the subtle terror of living as a black person in America. In contrast, Shape of Water is more of a tribute to Universal’s pulp creature features. It’s a more of a romantic drama than anything, really, but del Toro’s filmography, from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim, is packed with sub-genres of horror remixed into something else. With Shape of Water, del Toro realizes his childhood fantasy of seeing the Gill-man from the Black Lagoon be the object of affection, not revulsion, from the leading lady.
“You are the romantic leading man of this movie,” del Toro told star [Doug Jones while making the movie, the actor recalled in an interview with Inverse.
Like Shape of Water, romance plays a role in Get Out, though it couldn’t be more different after the first act. In a New York Times interview, Peele said he drew upon his fears when a white ex-girlfriend told him her parents didn’t know he was black. “I remember specifically asking if the parents knew I was black. She said no. That scared me,” Peele said. “I didn’t want to even see an adjustment on someone’s face when they realized it’s not what they thought.”
In making a body-switching horror out of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner — another film about the black experience that reached across the aisle — Peele makes something new out of old hats. It’s a classic survival horror story, yes, but instead of mad scientists and backwater cannibals, Peele makes his villains white “liberal elites.” The white teenagers of Elm Street can call 9-1-1, but as a black adult male, Peele knows Chris cannot.
“Evil hiding among us is an ancient theme,” director John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween) told Michael McCarty, author of Giants of the Genre. This is painfully true in Get Out, in which Peele fools audiences with Rose’s white liberal parents as “woke” allies than what they are: Auctioneers of black bodies.
In his acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay, Peele admitted he nearly quit Get Out because he didn’t think a horror film about being a black person would be interesting to anyone. “I thought it was impossible,” he said on stage. “I thought it wasn’t going to work. I thought no one would ever make this movie.” Later, in a backstage Q&A, Peele said there were too few black directors he could look to; Lee, Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers “were exceptions to the rule.” Indeed, to make Get Out, Peele had only his instincts and the goal of horror to, well, be scary.
“The grotesque has never really affected or frightened me. I guess it’s real-life stuff that frightens me much more,” said the late George Romero in a quote often attributed to him. Peele echoed these in his Times interview: “This movie is about the lack of acknowledgment that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists.”
Shape of Water, too, is an indictment of Trump-ish nationalism. Through Michael Shannon’s antagonistic government agent, audiences are encouraged to root for the monsters — the mute, queer, black, and bipedal fish characters — while knowing that the straight hero as the true monster. In his acceptance speech, del Toro, a Mexican immigrant, said art erases the “line in the sand” between people while the world “tells us to make them deeper.”
Sure, other genres are capable of exploring nuanced ideas like horror always has. The Marvel films Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther were scathing takes on colonial legacies, while sci-fi pictures Colossal and Annihilation have complicated ideas on gender. But horror’s obligation to scare is its greatest weapon. Though Shape of Water isn’t scary, it and Get Out have shown what the real monsters look like.