A slight misfire, the horror-comedy The Blackening doesn’t live up to the potential of its premise. Treading on jokes and tropes that have been done before and better, The Blackening is a film that’s amusing, perceptive, and unfortunately, never as clever as it thinks it is. In its best moments, the film calls out tiresome, prejudiced genre movie tropes, but they’re often just remarked upon, left at that, and the film barrels onto another target that will be grazed instead of annihilated. Pulling punches when it should be delivering knock-out blows, The Blackening frustrates as much as it delivers the most basic of horror-comedy entertainments.
The script from writers Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip, Little) and co-star Dewayne Perkins boasts a premise that wouldn’t sound out of place in a traditional horror movie setting: seven friends get together at a cabin in the woods for a reunion that turns unexpectedly deadly. The only catch this time out is that the friends are all black and are coming together for a Juneteenth party. There’s a psycho killer outside the cabin, and the friends are forced to play a horrifically racist board game – answering questions about black culture and performing deadly tasks – or else they all die.
If The Blackening sounds like a bit of a chip shot, that’s because it is, but it’s one that could pay off dividends in the right hands. The role of black people in horror cinema is much maligned and well documented, making it a prime target for satire and parody. But it’s a target that has been looked at quite a bit by now, thanks to the likes of the Scary Movie and Scream franchises and any number of better written characters for people of colour in genre cinema over the past few decades. These classic stereotypes still exist, but they aren’t as wildly prevalent as they were back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. So with The Blackening coming somewhat late to the party, Oliver, Perkins, and director Tim Story (Barbershop, Ride Along) need to put these tropes into a modern context, which could easily work in the light of recent historical events that are more frightening to the lives of black people than any number of horror films could ever be.
And that’s where The Blackening fails to inspire, because it does less in a full length package than other films have been able to do by only touching upon these subjects. While there’s plenty of chuckle worthy banter from time to time, there’s no cohesion to this film. At times it feels like a relic of a bygone era of filmmaking, where comedies just needed to be a bunch of thinly stitched together skits in order for it to work. There’s no real updating to the horror or comedic formula to be found in The Blackening, so instead of being perceptive and cutting, it often just feels like a talented group of performers going through the motions and playing the expected hits. The characters are thinly drawn archetypes – the macho one who has settled down into a life of domestic bliss (Melvin Gregg), the serial cheater (Sinqua Walls), the flamboyant gay one (Perkins), the hard partier (X Mayo), the Steve Urkel-like dork (Jermaine Fowler), the bi-racial woman who constantly gets teased (Grace Byers) – and just like most cheap horror movies, their plight seems meaningless outside of the obvious because it’s hard to care about any of them. They’re occasionally funny, but only because The Blackening is always taking an already well travelled comedic path with them.
Story’s clunky pacing and nonexistent feel for horror movie aesthetics reduces the effectiveness of the film even further. The funniest bits – where characters debate the meaning of blackness and the role people of colour play in popular culture – feel out of step with the rest of the film because Story stops the momentum of the narrative completely to stage them. The story is clearly meant to be Scream/Saw/Get Out adjacent, but it lacks the playfulness, panache, or dangerousness of any of those. The characters are already so thin that it’s hard to feel anything more about then than hoping they don’t die, and the lack of scariness doesn’t do the more comedic elements any favours.
The Blackening has some smarts and comedic chops to it – mostly thanks to a game cast of character actors – but it never leans into intelligence or silliness, preferring instead for a wet cardboard sort of middle ground that’s less of a head shot and more like an annoying paper cut. A truly awful final reveal is the last nail in the coffin for this one, with the story building to a grand reveal that’s both painfully obvious and surprisingly offensive given its overall context, making one genuinely wonder what the intent of the material was in the first place. The potential for a good movie is always evident in The Blackening, but poor execution and a muddled sense of purpose keeps holding it back.
The Blackening opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, June 16, 2023.
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