Jordan Peele's career as one of North America's most acclaimed horror filmmakers began only five years ago. Yet the director's influence is felt deeply across the landscape of a once-marginalized genre: a legacy further cemented by the arrival of his third film, Nope, to theatres on Friday.
Following Peele's social thrillers Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), Nope stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as sibling ranchers who run a horse wrangling business for film productions in California.
According to the CBC's Eli Glasner, it's a genre-twisting homage to science-fiction and the western.
Peele, who made an unlikely turn from fresh-faced sketch comic (Key & Peele) to celebrated genre filmmaker, told the Associated Press that he knew it was the right time for his latest offering.
"I feel like this is the first moment that anyone would ever allow me or anyone to make this movie. And so I had to take advantage. I had to go as big as possible," said Peele. "I was like: 'Let's go.'"
The horror genre, long a reliable money-maker at the box office, has always had something to say. But Peele's films have further exposed audiences to horror as a vehicle for sharp, biting social commentary, according to filmmakers and scholars.
Public perception of horror genre has changed
In the 1970s, American film critic Robin Wood described horror movies as "our collective nightmares" because they expressed society's greatest fear: that widely accepted social norms could be threatened by the emergence of a previously repressed monster.
But Wood also acknowledged that horror was the most "disreputable" of Hollywood genres, looked down on by reviewers and mocked by audiences. "People [tend] to go to horror films either obsessively or not at all," he wrote.
Peele, who won an Academy Award in 2018 for Get Out's original screenplay, has brought industry prestige to a historically overlooked genre. Among Peele's audience is a generation of BIPOC filmmakers inspired by his storytelling, which is preoccupied with the experiences of people from marginalized communities.
"I never would have thought of writing or directing a piece that was so much more centred in a community and in a voice. And when I saw Get Out, it completely shifted how I thought I could tell a story before," said Karen Lam, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker based in Vancouver.
Lam, whose film The Curse of Willow Song is set in Vancouver's Chinese-Canadian community, explained that she'd previously been reluctant to address her identity in her films. But horror films from around the world have a political edge, she said.
"When you look at something like zombie films, like when you look at Godzilla, that comes from a post-war Japanese terror, right? So the politics have always been there," just with more reliance on subtext, she said.
Both Get Out and Us made over $250 million US at the domestic box office in the U.S. against production budgets of $4.5 million and $20 million, respectively. Peele's success demonstrates that Black moviegoers expand ticket sales when they're reflected by characters onscreen.
According to a 2019 study by Movio, a movie marketing software firm, Us attracted an audience that was nearly 100 per cent more African American or Black than the audience that attended another horror movie, A Quiet Place.
Tananarive Due, a Black horror expert who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that executives took note after Get Out's success, opening doors for a Black-led horror renaissance with films like the 2021 reboot of Candyman.
Even Peele said he's unsure a movie like Nope would have been an easy sell in the early 2010s. "I felt like five, 10 years ago, I would never have been able to sell this movie to anyone," the director said.
WATCH | The trailer for Nope, the latest film from director Jordan Peele:
Among other things, Black horror is an expansive subgenre that reclaims the Black community's place in a film tradition where they have often been the first to die or are depicted as the monster.
"Get Out isn't for Black people. Nope isn't for Black people. It's expressing a Black experience," Due explained.
The scholar added that Peele, who once gave a guest lecture for her course, hadn't initially conceived Get Out as a thriller about race. Rather, it was a film about social anxiety and the feeling of being alone while surrounded by others.
"I think that it speaks volumes that even Peele himself didn't think of race initially when he was conceiving of Get Out, because what examples would he have been drawing from in terms of successful films in the past five years that were on a similar journey as Get Out?" she said.
"There just weren't any. So he had to go more deeply into his own experiences and his own truth to find that universal appeal."
Horror hybrids increasingly frequent
Summertime has been associated with the release of big horror titles since 1975, when Steven Spielberg's Jaws turned the ocean waters of a Cape Cod beachtown into a bloodbath.
Friday the 13th was an 1980s summer slasher, and teens spent July 1999 in a terror after The Blair Witch Project. Just last month, The Black Phone — starring Ethan Hawke as a sadistic kidnapper — made $23.3 million US in its first weekend, holding its own at a crowded box office.
Nope, meanwhile, is projected to make about $50 million US in its opening weekend, the industry publication Variety reported.
WATCH | Eli Glasner's glowing review of Nope, the 3rd horror film from Jordan Peele:
Colin Geddes, a Toronto-based film producer and curator at Shudder, a streaming platform for horror films, said the genre is resilient in a way that few are.
"Horror films have always been, let's say, recession-proof. They've always been there. They've always been popular. They don't go in and out like musicals or westerns," Geddes said.
"But the power of horror films is that you have kind of your own controlled panic. The times we live in are scary, but when you check in to watch a film or a horror film, you can turn it off at any point."
Horror is franchise-friendly — recent Scream and Halloween reboots did well with young moviegoers, and the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King's It was one of the biggest films of that year.
But it's also a haven for original storytellers like Peele, with David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, and Ari Aster's Hereditary having earned a respected place within the 21st century horror canon.
Peele, who engages with science-fiction and western tropes in Nope, said he was partly inspired by Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and M. Night Shyamalan's Signs.
"These are big-vision directors who have taken flying saucers and science fiction and have brought magic to the way they told those stories. I wanted to toss my hat in the ring to one of my favourite subgenres, in UFOs, and do it in a way only I can," Peele told the Associated Press.
Indeed, horror hybrids are having a moment, with films like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the Netflix series Squid Game dabbling in the genre without diving in head-first. Several films from the popular production company A24 – namely Midsommar and Lamb —meld Scandinavian folklore with horror.
But Get Out, Us and Nope are also laugh-out-loud funny, hearkening back to Peele's days in the comedy world. Other upcoming comedy-horror fare like Halina Reijn's Bodies Bodies Bodies and J.J. Perry's Day Shift blend laughs and scares.
Due, who saw an early screening of Nope, said that the film is not a comedy "by any means."
"But there are funny moments and funny characters, real tension, real horror, real wonder. It's just — it's nothing like anything Jordan Peele has done before now," she said.
"But yet, when you watch it, you're like, 'Oh yeah; that's Jordan Peele.'"