6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Despite Roman Polanski’s complicated legacy, there’s no denying ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a film that has unequivocally sealed its place among the pantheon of horror films. In fact, you could take any given thriller in the past half century and find traces of this 1968 classic all over it. For Jordan Peele, the connection goes beyond the academic, as he explained during an interview for USA Today. “I actually grew up a few blocks away from the building that was shot. When I was younger, it was actually a little too close to home, so it really kind of freaked me out more than I could appreciate it.”
However, the film soon grew to be one of his favorite horror movies. One of the things that he appreciates is the way it addresses fears surrounding the women’s lib movement in a way that was “engaging, not preachy, but fun. It signaled me that it was possible to make an inclusive story that everybody can enjoy and get freaked out by ”, something that would become a tonal inspiration for his debut. “Rosemary’s Baby is about gender in a similar way that ‘Get Out’ is about race, especially because as the movies develop, we reveal more and more about this sort of awful direction it’s heading.”
7. Images (1972)
Peele’s second feature explored themes of identity and the duality of human nature as symbolized by the evil doppelgängers that haunt the Wilson family. Our next film in the present list plumbs similar ground by diving headfirst into the headspace of a distraught woman who’s suffering from schizophrenia — haunted by visions of her husband, cryptic visitors and even alter egos of herself. As her mental state quickly begins to deteriorate and the lines between reality and hallucination blur together, the film calls into question the sanity of our protagonist — hinting, in a similar way to ‘Us’, that the real villain (and perhaps scariest) is always within ourselves.
Though ‘Images’ treads closer to the esoteric chamber dramas of Ingmar Bergman than Robert Altman’s signature sprawling ensembles (‘Nashville’, ’Short Cuts’), the latter has nonetheless been cited by Peele as a direct inspiration in terms of devising his own dialogue for ‘Get Out’. “I talked about Altman a lot, because I wanted it to feel very natural, the conversations feeling very natural, and I also love wide shots.”
8. The Shining (1980)
Having a captivating setting can make or break a film, perhaps in this genre more than in any other. Peele told the Wall Street Journal that he likes when horror movies toy with the viewers’ expectations by taking place in seemingly idyllic places, mentioning the Overlook Hotel as the best example of this trope. The director admitted having taken some cues from Stanley Kubrick’s opus when coming up with his debut, which takes place almost exclusively in a similarly luxurious household. For Peele, the magic of ‘The Shining’ can be found in how it weaponizes its location as “a kind of monster, sort of welcoming and beautiful but also unsettling.” The director argued that there’s a “subtlety, an attention to almost a subconscious level of perception of something creepy going on” that hasn’t been replicated by any other horror movie that well since.
Jack Nicholson is often put on a pedestal for his memorable performance as Jack Torrance, and for good reason. But it’s Shelley Duvall who received the highest praise of all from Peele, who didn’t hesitate to compliment her unforgettable performance as his favorite in any horror movie ever. “She did a perfect job of committing to the fear and from that, she brought the horror to the movie. Shelley Duvall, shout out.”
9. Misery (1990)
Much like Chris, the African American protagonist of ‘Get Out’, bestselling writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) finds himself held against his will at a remote cabin after he’s rescued from a car accident by an obsessive fan of his pulpy novels (Kathy Bates). The film keeps its cards close to chest before sliding towards a nightmarish crescendo during which our bedridden protagonist comes to realize that her torturing kidnapper has no plans of letting him go once he recovers from his injuries. With nothing but his wit to outsmart her, we witness him leave no stone unturned to break free once and for all.
Jordan Peele sung the praises of this Stephen King’s adaptation, noting how the unlikely villain turns out to be the scariest. “It’s also a movie where the acting and the performance and the script and the dialogue are where the fear in the movie lies. I love that kind of technique.” Kathy Bates earned a much-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her bone-chilling outing as Annie Wilkes, and James Caan’s commanding lead role also deserves a shout out. With the recent passing of the beloved actor, it feels like the perfect time to celebrate a high-water mark in his illustrious career.
10. Funny Games (1997)
It’s only right that we bookend this curated list with Michael Haneke, another agent provocateur cut from the same cloth as Jordan Peele who doesn’t care about ruffling a few feathers and pushing our buttons to get his message across. Very much like ‘Us’, the 1997 ‘Funny Games’ uses a sadistic home invasion as a baseline for a scorching exploration of class resentment, bourgeois privilege and societal desensitization towards violence that dismantles every horror trope there is. It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that Peele included the Austrian film among the ten horror staples that Lupita Nyong’o had to watch in preparation for her lead role in the director’s sophomore feature.
Right from the offset, ‘Funny Games’ is brimming with fourth-wall-breaking tactics deliberately inserted to confront the viewers and interrogate our complicity of the morbid crimes that we blindly consume on the silver screen. The film dares to suggest that, contrary to what we might want to believe, deep down we’re not so much on the victim’s side but on the perpetrators’, only because without conflict there’s no suspense, no violence, and thus, no thrills. Any Jordan Peele enthusiast who likes to get his expectations subverted will feel right at home in this not-quite-homely, iconoclastic masterpiece.