Get Out.

Get Out (amazoniTunes) remains one of the top-reviewed movies of the year seven months after its initial release, despite multiple factors working against it: It’s a horror film, it was released in a dead spot in the calendar, and it was written and directed by an African-American man. The film has been a critical and commercial success, and is now the highest-grossing movie with an African-American director, along with a hilarious 99% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (And even that might be misleading; one of the two “negative” reviews is a 3/5 rating from a non-professional critic, while the other is noted gadfly Armand White.)

I’ve said several times here that I avoid most entries in the horror genre, almost entirely out of a dislike of graphic violence. The modern trend of “torture porn” and body horror may have its audience – sociopaths and prospective serial killers, I ssume – but I am not of it. The handful of horror movies I’ve seen and liked have been psychological or gothic horror films; I often cite The Others as one of my favorites, because it’s creepy as hell, wonderfully acted, and free of violence.

Get Out does have some blood and a not insignificant body count, but it is very much a psychological horror movie, and even takes pains to keep the worst of the violence off-screen. The horror within the movie preys on our fear of mortality, our questions about identity, and racial guilt and animus, but not outright violence. There are unoriginal elements within the film, and one horror-movie cliché so pervasive I caught it despite limited experience with the genre, but the script as a whole is tight, unified, and clever, tackling subtle racism with a story that starts out equally subtle before it explodes into a paranoid and utterly bonkers physical manifestation of the problem.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) have been dating four months and are about to head to her family’s estate so he can meet her parents. He expresses reservations because she hasn’t told her parents that her boyfriend is black, but she assures him that they’re progressive, open-minded people who would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could have (a phrase her father, played by Bradley Whitford, repeats almost verbatim). When they do arrive there, Chris notices that the family employs a few black servants who speak and move with a strangely flat affect, while Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener) appears hellbent on hypnotizing Chris to cure him of his smoking habit. She later manages to do this, seemingly without his knowledge, in the middle of his first night there.

When the family hosts a big garden party the next day, the various older white guests make all manner of peculiar, racial (but not always overtly racist) comments towards Chris, while the one black guest, a young man named Logan who arrives with a much older white woman, is ‘off’ the way the servants are, and completely loses his composure when Chris takes his picture, as the flash triggers a total change in his demeanor and he attacks Chris while growling at him “get out!” Chris sends the picture to his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who is a combination of Smart Brother and Conspiracy Brother, and Rod informs him that Logan is actually Andre, who had gone missing from their neighborhood six months earlier. After that, the movie largely confirms that everything that looked amiss is very much so, and then some, with a quick transition from psychological suspense to outright horror that works because the story is so tightly written up to that point.

The script works as a straight story, with a few jump scares along the way, but succeeds more by taking the stereotype of the “post-racial” white progressive and turning it inside out, using metaphor to expose such people as fakes or flakes – people who don’t really believe what they spout, or who simply fail to back up what they say when real action is required. Rod is the most dependable person in Chris’s life, and is essential to Chris’ hopes of escape at the end of the film, while one by one the “nice” white people Chris has met end up betraying him. You could even take Peele’s example of Logan/Andre as a warning about assimilation, about losing one’s identity and culture in an effort to fit into “American” culture and society by conforming to white norms and standards.

The remainder of this review contains possible spoilers.

The escape sequence of Get Out is taut and surprisingly focused on Chris’s psychological state, and has him relying on his mental skills at least as much as his physical to try to get himself out of the house. The one cliché I mentioned earlier appears here – the person who was pretty definitely dead suddenly appearing, not dead, and at full strength, despite (in this case) suffering a rather traumatic head injury – as if Peele needed one more person for Chris to fight before he could get out of the building. That same scene ends with an off-screen death that recalled Chris Partlow’s murder of Bug’s father near the end of The Wire season 4, but with all of the violence here left off screen, whereas the HBO series made the killing more visible and graphic. Even when Chris does one of the dumb things that the protagonists in horror films do, a choice involving Georgina, it’s at least well-founded in his character’s history and further explained through flashbacks at the moment of the decision (which turns out to be the wrong one, of course).

The core conceit of the film also struck me as a direct allusion to (or lift from) Being John Malkovich, which made the casting of Keener, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the earlier film. BJM is more of a clever idea than a fully-realized film, like a short story that couldn’t bear the weight of two hours of plot, while Get Out turns the story over and makes the Malkovich analogue the center of the film, while actually finishing the story off properly. So while the central gimmick is not original, Peele manages to do in his first produced script to what Charlie Kaufman (who wrote BJM) didn’t do until his third, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won Kaufman the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The idea at the heart of Get Out may not have been Peele’s, but he turned it into a complete work with a clear resolution.

Peele has also spoken since the film was released about alternate endings he’d considered, one of which he filmed and most of which were darker than the one we get on screen, but I’ll stand up for the script as it was actually filmed. The film asks whether black Americans can depend on whites at all to help them achieve or move towards equality, and answers it with an unequivocal ‘no.’ The ending we get at least implies that black Americans can reach those goals, but only by helping themselves, and doing so in rather heroic fashion, relying on their wits more than they do the stereotyped physical qualities that the Armitages and their ilk ascribe to African-Americans.

After hearing multiple warnings about the nature of the end of the film, I thought Get Out chose the high road in presenting a horror-film sequence with more emphasis on what’s happening in Chris’s head than what’s happening to all the bodies, including his, and I enjoyed the movie far more than I expected. The film is also boosted by some strong performances, especially Kaluuya (born in England, but nailing the American accent), Williams, Keener, and especially Howery, whose role is largely comic but absolutely fills up the screen whenever he appears and delivers by far the movie’s funniest line near its end.

I imagine, given the critical acclaim for the film and the criticism of the 2014 and 2015 Oscar nominee slates for the lack of persons of color among major nominees, that this film will be the rare horror movie to find itself with an Academy Award nomination, perhaps for Best Original Screenplay, and likely a Best Original Score nod for Michael Abels. As far as I can tell, The Exorcist is the only straight horror movie to earn a Best Picture nod – even Rosemary’s Baby didn’t get one – so there’s an outside chance we’ll see some history made if Get Out does the same. It would be an incredible outcome for a movie that had so many factors working against it before its release.

Elder Sign.

My buyer’s guides to catchers and DHs, corner infielders, and outfielders are all up for Insiders over at ESPN.com.

Elder Sign is a cooperative dice-manipulation game set in the Cthulu world created by the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. One to eight players act as investigators seeking to explore a mansion haunted by the minions of an “Ancient One,” the main enemy who will awaken if the players take too long to complete enough tasks to allow them to defeat him. If he awakens, the players must then battle with him against fairly significant odds or lose the game entirely.

The theme is elaborate, but the game is pretty simple: You’re playing Yahtzee! with different dice, and you can use various cards and investigator skills to alter the dice to try to get the specific rolls you need. Every room card has one or more tasks that you must complete by achieving specific rolls on the set of six green dice. You may need to use multiple dice to complete a task, but you can only complete one task per roll – if your roll completes several, you complete one, removing those dice, then roll the remainder to try to complete another task. Once you’ve completed all of the tasks on a card, you get the rewards shown on the room card, from extra item cards to the elder sign points that you use to defeat the Ancient One. If you fail to complete any task on a roll, you must give up one die to reroll and often pay a “terror” penalty as well. If you fail to complete all of the tasks on a card you’ve begun, you pay a penalty that usually costs you one or more Stamina or Sanity points – and if you run out of either, your investigator is out of the game.

The game includes a clock that advances fifteen minutes after each player’s turn. When the clock reaches midnight, something bad happens: A monster appears and is added to a room with an open slot, or a doom token is added to the Ancient One’s doom track, which, when filled, means the big guy wakes up (and he is pissed). There can be additional effects at midnight based on what room cards are on the table and what Ancient One is in play, but the bottom line is that none of these things are good.

Each investigator has a special skill, from the ability to reroll some or all dice to the ability to complete multiple tasks on one dice roll, the most useful one I’ve found in the game. Investigators can also acquire different item cards – Common Items, most of which allow the player to add a special yellow die to the green ones; Special Items, most of which give you a red die to roll; Spells, most of which allow you to store one or two of your rolled dice to retain a specific result for the next roll; Clues, which allow you to reroll any or all of your dice without having to surrender one first; and Allies, helpful assistants that might give you an extra skill or roll. Other cards may allow you to defeat a monster without a roll, regain a Stamina or Sanity point, or open up special rooms from the Other world, which tend to offer better rewards and smaller penalties.

Investigators work as a team to accumulate the number of Elder Signs required to defeat the Ancient One, but there’s very little in-game collaboration. The bulk of the teamwork involves figuring out which investigator is best equipped to tackle each room – the investigator who’s immune to Sanity and Stamina penalties within tasks is the ideal candidate to go after a room with several of those required to finish it, for example. Using Amanda Sharpe, the investigator who can complete two or more tasks on one roll, might be a waste on a card with only one task.

The other key decision is which rooms to try to solve before the next time the clock strikes midnight. Rooms that return one or more Elder Signs are always valuable, but a few room cards allow the investigator to remove a Doom token from the Doom track if they’re completed. Some rooms have negative effects at midnight, like adding more doom tokens or deducting one Sanity point from every investigator, so taking them out quickly is key to extending your time to complete the game. Other rooms and monsters “lock” dice so they’re unusuable until the room is completed or the monster is slain. (If you kill a monster but then don’t complete the room in which he was hanging out, the monster is still dead and you still get the benefits of dispatching him.)

I’ve found value in tackling rooms that open Other rooms when solved, because of the latter category’s more favorable risk/reward ratio. The game also includes the Entrance, a sort of shop where players can return Trophy points, acquired by completing rooms or defeating monsters, for additional clues, cards, or even Elder Signs, although I’ve found I only make use of the Entrance to return Trophies for healing or to buy Elder Signs.

Ultimately, however, this is a luck-based game where you are working to manage your luck by mitigating its effects. A basic understanding of probability helps, of course, but in general it’s best to throw everything you’ve got into each room’s set of tasks because of the high cost of failure and the fact that every item or trick you use for rolls reduces your dependence on random chance. It’s the kind of game that can have you muttering that the dice are loaded after ten straight dice don’t give you the one skull (“peril” … seriously, the terminology here is stupid) image you needed, so accepting that you’ll have outlier rolls that make your can’t-miss strategy miss is part of the fun. It’s a solid mid-weight game, good as a cooperative game that has more individual decision-making than Pandemic, but you have to be able to live with Elder Sign’s heavy reliance on dice to like it.

There is a modified app version of Elder Sign sold as Elder Sign: Omens for the iPad and iPhone. I played at least a dozen games without a single crash, and the graphics are very strong and clear, drawn directly from the physical game. The interface is clumsy, unfortunately, and I had a few instances where I clicked on something, expecting more information, only to find I’d made an irrevocable choice – a dialog making sure that I wanted to give up on a room before finishing would be a good addition. It’s also too many clicks to get information on rooms or what each investigator is holding, and even if you disable the videos there’s too much nonsense in between each investigator’s turn for my tastes. The app differs in a few small ways from the board game – I don’t think there are Ally cards at all, and once the big foozle wakes up the game is over. The base app costs $6.99 and includes four Ancient Ones to fight; three more are available as in-app purchases for $2.99 each, each of which also adds some investigator options. It’s worth the seven bucks to try it out before buying the physical game, although compared to other boardgame apps in the $6-10 price range you get less bang for your buck.