By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Black actors and filmmakers have played monumental and understated roles in the horror genre. Duane Jones iconically played the lead in George A. Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, showing that black actors can thrive (and survive) even the scariest of horror films. The Candyman series, meanwhile, spawns from an African-American man’s murder due to an interracial love affair. More recently, Jordan Peele crafted one of the most notable horror films of the 21st century with Get Out and continues to impress horror fans with the likes of Us and Nope. Unfortunately, the intersection of Black filmmaking and horror cinema remains underappreciated. Thankfully, this intersection gets the spotlight more glaringly in this summer’s The Blackening, a new horror comedy from director Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Ride Along) and writers Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins.
With a release fittingly tied to this year’s Juneteenth, The Blackening is based on a 2018 short film of the same name by comedy troupe 3Peat and debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Taking the ‘black characters always die first in horror movies’ trope and running with it, the film follows an all-Black group of friends who hold a reunion at a secluded cabin in the woods. Things get spooky as a masked killer stalks the premises and the friends are faced with an unsettling board game that tasks them to rank one another based on their ‘Blackness.’ With their lives under threat, the friends must try and find a way to escape, which will require a knowledge of horror films and Black history.
It’s clear early on in The Blackening that the filmmakers struck gold with a fantastic ensemble cast. Antoinette Robertson’s Lisa and Grace Byers’ Allison are driving to the cabin with their friend Dewayne (played by Dewayne Perkins) when the two women stumble on a conversation topic that is uncomfortable for Dewayne. Strangely staring into one another’s eyes, Lisa and Allison begin to telepathically communicate with their facial expressions. This isn’t a supernatural turn for the film, but, rather, the introduction of a running joke in which these friends can often know what each other is thinking by intuitively analyzing their facial expressions. This ‘mind-reading’ running joke could have easily gone awry in starting the film on a shaky foundation and yet this is not the case whatsoever. In addition to providing a hearty laugh, it also conveys the sense of closeness these friends have, something that is felt throughout the film.
Watching the organic camaraderie and rapport between the friends is the highlight of The Blackening. The perfectly cast ensemble trade witty jokes and expressions among one another throughout with genuinely hilarious laughs seemingly coming every few moments. There’s great variety with the humor including physical gags, plays on horror movie tropes, more absurd elements like the ‘mind-reading,’ and clever comments on race and prejudice. Although not all jokes are knock-out successes, overwhelmingly, this is the kind of movie one has to experience in a packed theater.
Part of this crowd-pleasing can be attributed to the film’s self-referential elements. There is no explicit fourth wall breaking, but there are plenty of winks to the audience that make for some solid laughs. For instance, the one white character in the film, who is played by Diedrch Bader, is named Officer White. The all-Black cast play a board game about Black history and frequently reference tropes and stereotypes of horror films that come to fruition in one way or another.
The humor works so well because there is no weak link in the cast. All eight friends brilliantly play off another and are extremely easy to root for. The highlight of the ensemble is Melvin Gregg, who previously played roles in American Vandal, The Way Back, and High Flying Bird. Ever since knocking it out of the park with a phenomenally funny and heartfelt performance in Netflix’s American Vandal, Gregg has impressed with screen presence and compelling personality. Gregg shines in The Blackening as King, one of the friends who married a white woman and who may or may not have brought a gun on the trip. Also hilarious is Dewayne Perkins, who plays a gay man with resentment toward another member of the friend group. Perkins’ comedic timing is spectacular and is responsible for some of the film’s most effective jokes.
But the film’s sense of humor cannot be properly praised without acknowledging the work of Tim Story. Story has a mixed track record with comedies, ranging from the classic Barbershop to the disappointing Ride Along movies. It’s refreshing to see Story return to a smaller film with The Blackening after bigger turns, most recently with the Tom & Jerry movie. As demonstrated throughout The Blackening, Story knows how to deliver a scene-capping punchline joke, which complements his expert handling of the film’s large cast.
Although it certainly leans more heavily into its comedic elements, The Blackening also plays as an engaging slasher. Its self-referential tendencies combined with its horror movie plot make The Blackening feel more like a parody than Scream, but not as much as Scary Movie. The film’s masked killer wears a mask resembling offensive Blackface imagery, which adds to the film’s array of unnerving moments. The horror though isn’t nearly as effective as the film’s sense of humor, meaning viewers more interested in horror than humor may come away disappointed with the tameness of The Blackening’s frights.
More positively, the cultural commentary intrinsic to both the film’s horror and comedy comes full circle with a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Whereas most slashes tend to lose momentum in their third act when identities are revealed, The Blackening nicely ties everything up and offers solid narrative justification for its focus on and celebration of Black history and culture.
The Blackening is a hilarious, crowd-pleasing horror comedy that is best experienced among other moviegoers in a packed theater. A fresh and kinetic ensemble deliver a variety of (mostly) effective jokes, many of which are cleverly self-aware and tie into fun cultural commentary. The film excels more so as a comedy than a horror film, although its filmmakers clearly have an appreciation for slashers and Black contributions to horror cinema. Sharp writing and loads of laughs make The Blackening an outrageously entertaining theatrical experience and one of the best movies of the year so far.