One of the most effective powers of horror cinema is taking the familiar and turning it on its ear to create a vessel of unease — or even outright terror. What if that seemingly innocent child was actually evil? What if, behind those friendly smiles, your neighbors were plotting horrors? What if the man in the mirror actually wanted to kill you?
In a similar manner, contemporary horror master Jordan Peele has found a new use for the most basic and versatile tool in the fear factory toolbox. While his films put novel twists on familiar frights like ambiguous racism and familial strife, he’s shown an equally innovative propensity for transforming our favorite hits, bops, and jams into the stuff of nightmares.
Like the build of tension over the course of the first act, his initial foray into this terrifying territory was subtle and could be easy to miss. It takes place at the very beginning of his first feature, Get Out. The Academy Award-winning debut was a shock in itself when it was first announced. The funnyman from Chappelle Show heir apparent Key & Peele (a misapplied honor in its own right) was going to do horror?
But then the film opens to the familiar tune of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” with its ominous admonition to “stay woke,” and it becomes clear that Peele understood more than anyone expected. Of course, that song is an undeniable favorite, handing Donald Glover a Grammy win for Best Traditional R&B Performance with its nods to the psychedelic funk of Parliament and the Family Stone.
In the context of the film itself, though, it serves two functions. One, to establish photographer protagonist Chris’ hip, contemporary awareness of pop culture, placing him firmly in a demographic of young, urban professionals who would be exactly the type to have the song on repeat. It’s no coincidence that this is also the group most likely to be exposed to the sort of wishy-washy, borderline accidental microaggressions that the film’s plot sends up.
But the second service of the song’s placement is that of the audience’s voice in the film, warning the character to watch out. And reflecting the character’s traditional ignorance to our cries in the darkened theater, Chris ignores the plaintive strains of Glover’s vocals, to his own eventual dismay.
And if that instance was the setup, Peele’s next deft disturbance of the musical status quo established him as an expert in not only the use of music to set the spooky atmosphere of a film’s fiendish setting but also in paying off that setup at the height of the film’s action. This time, the song in question is a Bay Area staple, the 1995 Luniz anthem “I Got 5 On It,” which plays in Peele’s follow up 2019 film Us, both the first act in its original form as the Wilson family drives to Santa Cruz for vacation and at the film’s climax when protagonist Addy faces her doppelganger Red in a subterranean fight to the death.
It’s in the second act that the transformation comes, strangling and stretching and stringing out the well-worn beat into something sinister. But this change didn’t even originate within the film itself; instead, Peele and his collaborators later revealed that it had been added to the scene as a response to the enthusiastic reception it received from fans reacting to its use in the film’s trailer, months before its release. The menacing strings and eerie pauses that had been threaded through the song’s DNA like a malignant viral strain had so unnerved audiences that Peele knew it’d be perfect for use in the film’s climactic scene. He was right.
The tactic proved so effective that it was later revisited in the initial trailer for Candyman in 2020, though the film was only produced by Peele, rather than written or directed by him (Nia DaCosta handles those honors this time around, although Peele contributed to the script, as did Win Rosenfeld, his frequent collaborator). The use of the Destiny’s Child 1999 fidelity challenge “Say My Name” cleverly played on the titular killer’s memorable gimmick — in order to summon the Candyman, you must say his name five times in a mirror.
This time, the evocation of Peele’s signature move is like a composer’s confident flourish at the crescendo of his magnum opus. You could say that it’s a rote device, that it’s a crutch, that it’s even (gasp) a gimmick. But in the hands of a horror hero like Jordan Peele, it’s instead a recognizable trademark, as indelible to his work as the hockey mask is to Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kruger’s bladed glove in The Nightmare on Elm Street. Peele wields musical cues — from hip-hop to R&B to revivalist funk — the way Leatherface swings his chainsaw or Michael Myers looms with his kitchen knife. He turns a tool made for the purpose of evoking one emotion into a weapon with which he carves through his audiences’ expectations, bringing screams of both horror and delight.