Jordan Peele made it very clear before his movie Get Out’s surprise Sundance premiere that it was not about his in-laws.

Smart move.

Get Out is one of the sharpest horror films about the uneasiness that comes with meeting a loved one’s parents and siblings for the first time and the subject of blended families. Unnerving and laugh-out-loud funny, its tale of an African-American man who goes home with his white girlfriend for the first time doesn’t exactly paint the most flattering portrait of the lead character’s potential new family. It does what all great horror movies do: turn real-world anxieties into the stuff of nightmares.

Peele’s hero is a photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). After five happy months with Rose (Allison Williams), she brings him to her family’s home in the suburbs for the first time. Although Chris and Rose have a warm and affectionate relationship, there are some ominous signs the trip might be a bad idea. Chris’ best friend (LilRel Howery) begs him not to go. On the drive up to Rose’s parents, a deer runs into the road and crashes into their car. After the collision, Chris walks to the edge of the woods and watches the animal die.

Things don’t get any less creepy once they arrive at their destination. Rose’s mom Missy (Catherine Keener) and dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) seem nice, but their two black servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), behave strangely, with forced smiles, old-fashioned diction, and inexplicable emotional outbursts. And even though Dean says he would have gladly voted for Obama a third time if he could, there’s something about the way he says that his basement is locked up because of “black mold” and shows off the picture of a relative who lost a race to Jesse Owens that sounds a little threatening.

These early scenes do a terrific job of playing into relatable discomforts that exist in any family when new members are introduced and everyone wants to be on their best behavior. It’s very easy to get paranoid in this high-pressure situation, and Peele effectively plays to those fears. Maybe it’s all in Chris’ head? But then there are incidents that are harder to dismiss, like the curious appearance of Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) at Dean and Missy’s party. After Andre gets his picture taken, he leaps at Chris and screams “Get out!”

Without spoiling what follows, Chris’ trepidation isn’t entirely unfounded. (Note to self: Make sure daughter never dates the child of a hypnotist.) But even as Get Out shifts into more overt horror territory, Peele still finds spaces to insert more cultural and political critiques, and he does it without sacrificing his ear for witty, naturalistic dialogue. (Whitford’s diatribe about the evils of deer sounded so much like one my mother has made in the past, I’d swear she co-wrote the scene.)

Peele, previously best known as one of the two creators of the sketch show Key & Peele, has an instinctive handle on how and when to build tension and then release it, either with a scare or a laugh. He’s probably the best new director at blending horror and comedy since Edgar Wright burst onto the scene with Shaun of the Dead (even if, at this stage of his career, Peele still seems a little more comfortable with the comedy than the horror). Comparisons to The Stepford Wives are obvious and natural, but Peele also borrows a considerable amount from Hitchcock, another director who loved to blur the line between terror and dark comedy. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, for example, that Chris uses the same weapon (a camera and flash) as the paranoid hero of Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Peele’s a keen observer of classic cinema, but Get Out isn’t just a derivative rehash of what’s come before. It takes those old movies and applies the things that made them work to a fresh scenario that’s both specific and universal. For his sake, I just hope Peele’s real in-laws have a good sense of humor. If not, Thanksgiving dinner could get a little awkward this year, even with the public disclaimer.


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