Directed by Tim Story, The Blackening is a meta-horror parody that kills in terms of its sheer laughs and terrific writing.
The Black character dying “first” is unfortunately a trope we all know quite well. We’ve seen it happen to Omar Epps, Ving Rhames, Meagan Good (twice, no less), and even in 2023, it’s still a common occurrence despite being constantly made fun of in various horror satires. Even if the black characters are lucky enough to survive the killer’s first slashing, expectations are not high that they will reach the end credits in one piece. But what happens when your entire cast is black? Who dies then? And at what point? It’s a question writer and co-star Dewayne Perkins looks to answer with The Blackening, a surprisingly fresh take on the horror comedy genre with clear reverence to the classics that came before it.
Directed by Tim Story (Ride Along, Taxi) and co-written by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins, The Blackening follows a group of friends gathering for a Juneteenth college reunion at a remote cabin (Or is it a house? There is some contention on this). This cabin is of course in the woods, and as the drinks flow and the drugs hit, these friends become trapped — in a basement, naturally — and are forced to play a board game centered around the idea of their blackness and shared culture. The group must figure out a way to beat the game and confront their killer before its game over for each and every one of them.
The cast features a mix of known actors — such as Jay Pharoah, Jermaine Fowler, and Yvonne Orji — with up-and-coming stars like Dewayne Perkins and X Mayo. The standout performance, however, comes from Melvin Gregg as King, a self-proclaimed “reformed gangbanger” who for most of the film serves as the audience surrogate and main source of comedic relief.
“We can’t all die first.”
Adapted from a digital short also written by Perkins, The Blackening transcends its own comedy origins and announces itself not as just a spoof but indeed a fully-realized horror comedy. There are genre archetypes and references everywhere you look; from the establishing hero’s shot of the friends driving together to a remote location to a creepy gas station at the edge of town with the ominous and forebodingly creepy attendant.
Lovers of classic slashers will appreciate the time Story spent establishing the film with the dressings of time-honored style. The best development for this film was Lionsgate allowing this to be released as an R-rated movie instead of PG-13. The deaths are violent, the blood gushes, and a real sense of danger hangs over the movie. Story faced a daunting task in distinguishing a unique tone apart from the Wayans’ family’s A Haunted House and of course the Scary Movie franchise. He succeeds on every level, particularly when it comes to establishing the film’s distinct visual language and voice.
A movie about friends, for friends.
In a movie so concentrated around the idea of blackness, it would’ve been effortless to create characters that lean closer to caricatures. That is absolutely not the case with this group of multi-dimensional friends, as the individuality, backstory, and overall personality for each of them leaps off the screen, combined with the clear chemistry among the entire cast. The film is all the more believable despite its absurdist foundation, because at least the characters themselves feel real and authentic. Like they’re actually a real group of friends from college with their own established dynamics and roles, and there are certainly no sidekicks.
No film is without its faults, of course, and The Blackening suffers from the arbitrary constraints of a 96-minute runtime. The interpersonal character development falters so the plot can keep moving, and the audience has to infer a bit too much information. There are also moments when Story undercuts the tension with forced comedy beats. In one particular sequence, we get a big showdown with Grace Byer’s character, Allison, and the killer that has a huge build up in the score immediately gives way to a needle drop that completely steals away the stress and anxiety felt by the audience. And there’s a Catch 22 in the film’s choice to root itself in the familiar grooves of a classic horror as the plot does become a bit predictable and familiar, when the point is supposed to be that we should expect the opposite.
The bottom line.
The Blackening is best suited for a crowded theater experience, or at the very least a shared celebration among horror fans in a dimly lit living room. It drowns in references to Black culture, but never to exclude anyone outside the know. The audience, no matter where they’re at, are invited to laugh with the chaos, never at the expense of a single person or group.
That’s where the real magic of The Blackening comes in. In the midst of such an unhinged meta-movie event, it connects people from various backgrounds and interests through its constant barrage of comedy, but also a genuine atmosphere of fear. Making it a new horror mainstay worth revisiting for years to come.
The Blackening opens in theaters on June 16. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Lionsgate. Read more articles by Mike Overhulse here.
THE BLACKENING - 8/10