The posters for The Blackening might make this horror-comedy look like a horror spoof along the lines of the Scary Movie series or something like Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th… and you’d be very, very wrong if you think that. Quite possibly one of the funniest of its kind since Blazing Saddles – I know, that’s a hell of a claim – The Blackening gleefully jumps between pastiche, metafiction, social commentary, hangout vibes, being its own thing, and the more subtle end of slapstick while remaining true to its core of being a slasher flick.
It’s not “elevated horror” or spoof; the often-fraying tightrope director Tim Story walks to keep frights and laughs grounded in the real is the reason why The Blackening is special. There are elements of parody and obvious self-reference in play, but never to the point of caricature or excess, and Story is careful in preventing anything or anyone from pushing past the breaking point. Occasionally, actors or action skirt the limits, but it’s all quickly reined in and brought right back to the tense area Story has meticulously carved out in which this movie lives until the mid-credit has imparted its final zinger.
For starters, most “deserted cabin in the woods” films of this ilk involve mostly Caucasian casts who spend the film doing dumb stuff before the masked killer has their way with them one by one. Turning that whole trope on its head by involving smart and savvy Black people who know exactly how this kind of thing works kicks off a tidal wave of laughter, as Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins’ script (based on a short film by 3Peat, also written by Perkins) crackles with constant electricity. Whether talking about relationships, horror movie tropes, or getting ready to have a Molly party, Oliver and Perkins always have something up their sleeves – a well-timed snap, an African-American colloquialism (the word others dare not use), a damning or hilarious character reveal, or an arrow to the throat, among others.
Right from the start, Story doses us with the setting and its trappings: an isolated house, the creaky doors that keep opening for some reason, and the fact that no one ever announces their presence to someone in the room before appearing right at their shoulders. Oliver and Perkins’ gift for popping dialogue is unleashed in the film’s cold open, getting us ready for the kind of smarts and fun we’re about to have. Five minutes is all it takes for college reunion hosts Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and Shawn (Jay Pharaoh) to orient us with the film’s patter and grab us as they introduce us to this film’s motor: a terribly racist game called – you guessed it – The Blackening.
It’s a board game with cards and metal pieces (the fact that these pieces are known as “tokens” is not lost on me), with the centerpiece being a very disturbing blackface head, accompanied by an electronic voice that directs players on their next moves. As Morgan, Shawn, and their seven guests discover, there’s much more to this game than they think, especially when the game’s electronic voice starts using their names and threatening them. The players must answer the questions on the card to advance to the next space or to stay alive, depending on whatever the voice wants. And the questions? They all have to do with Blackness and how the players measure up.
There’s diversity among the guests which defines their social status, histories, and personalities, all of which are used to skewer each of them at different points. While everyone’s there to have a blast, they all have a chip on their shoulder, whether it’s being lighter-skinned or darker-skinned than the others, being a reformed gangsta, having a couple of extra pounds, or being the only homosexual of the group. They aren’t the usual horror movie fodder, the kind of characters who emulsify toward the end; these distinctions between them are steadfastly maintained to keep the comedy and tension at a lively pulse.
It’s a joy getting to know each and every one of them through witty, acerbic, and acidic exchanges. This 10-year Juneteenth reunion gives this group room to separate themselves from their self-proclaimed college immaturity while still allowing jokes to be made in hindsight. Constant references are made to serial womanizer Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls) and how he broke former girlfriend Lisa’s (Antoinette Robertson) heart repeatedly. Nnamdi’s presence alone is going to make Dewayne (co-writer Perkins) that bitch for the weekend, seeing how he was always the one who picked up the pieces and got Lisa back on her feet.
Party girl Allison (Grace Byers), loudmouth Shanika (X Mayo), tough guy King (Melvin Gregg), and Urkel-type nerd Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) also carve out strong, solid characters for themselves. You can feel the whole cast pulling on the same rope and contributing heavily toward how much fun we’re having in their own idiosyncratic ways. They know they’re in a mess; further, they know how horror movies treat Black people, and their observations on how their lives are valued in these predicaments – and in general, which isn’t too far off from where they find themselves on this night of terror – are hilarious. (You’re better off experiencing it rather than me spoiling anything.) Along with Tim Story, they’re completely in charge of how far they get to push before devolving into late-night comedy territory. None of them come across as sketches; they’re all invested in making these characters real in an unreal situation.
Staying in the “not outlandish enough to be a spoof, but serious and seriously funny in all other respects” space is why The Blackening is a brilliant smash. It knows what it wants to be, and it shouts it with confidence. It’s a Friday the 13th without the stupidity. It’s Scream with more of a focus on laughs that come from truth, not satire. It’s Blazing Saddles without the fourth wall breaking and the farting. (It might possibly have the same number of uses of the n-word, though.) The Blackening is a masterclass in finding the line between the real and the exaggeration, then having well-defined characters play it as straight as possible or just a little extra to stay on that line. The result is a film full of laughs from top to bottom, with killer frights waiting in the wings.