The Blackening

There is a trope that the Black character in a horror movie will be the first to go. Think of the number of horror movies, especially slasher films, that you've seen and try to remember how many of them had a Black character that lasted past the first thirty minutes of the movie. The killer arrives, someone has to go, and invariably its the Black character with a target painted on them. Even when they aren't the first to go, they generally aren't the last one left standing. That has to be the Final Girl, the pretty blond girl that always gets to live until the killer comes around in the next movie. That's the trope, and it generally holds.

Now, sure, you might be able to come up with one or two Black characters in the history of slasher flicks who survive their movies (the Meeks-Martin twins, Mindy and Chad, from Scream '22 and Scream VI, have enough plot armor on them to improbably survive their movies), but by and large those will be the exception to the rule. And that, of course, is the main joke of The Blackening, the slasher horror/comedy released on Juneteenth of this year: if every character in the film is Black, how can they all die first?

There is a fine line to be tread between horror and comedy. Films that try to do both tend to veer harder towards one or the other, and comedy is certainly easier to pull off than truly great scares. When your premise is to parody the horror genre then comedy is going to be your primary goal. That is certainly the case with The Blackening, with a lot of jokes and bits thrown in to keep the horror edge dull while the movie riffs. That's not to say there aren't scares, as there are, but this is a comedy first, horror film second. I think there is probably a way this film could have been scarier, and it might have made for an even more effective film, but it's pretty clear the creators wanted to craft a light, scary, funny hang out film, and in that regard they absolutely succeeded.

On the weekend of Juneteenth, Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and boyfriend Shawn (Jay Pharoah), arrive at a lake house out in the middle of nowhere to have a reunion with all their friends. While exploring the cabin they come across the game room where a board game, The Blackening, resides. The game is more than a little racist, but the two think it's some kind of joke and decide to play. When they are unable to answer the first question the game asks them, though, a masked killer shows up, stabs Shawn, and dragged Morgan off into the dark.

The next day the rest of the friends arrive -- Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), Allison (Grace Byers), Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), King (Melvin Gregg), Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls ), and Shanika (X Mayo) -- joined by tag-along (and not well liked party member) Clifton (Jermaine Fowler). They get settled in, unconcerned that Morgan and Shawn aren't around at the time, and get down to business: having fun. They get some drinks going, start up a round of Spades, and start to chill. But then the power goes out and the group has to figure out where the breaker box is set. They wander into the game room, find The Blackening, and as the door closes and locks behind them, the TV comes on, showing them Morgan, tied to a chair. They now have to play the racist game, and get ten questions right, or Morgan, and then the rest of the group, will all die. Someone has a fucked up plan and now they're all trapped in it for the night.

The fun of The Blackening (the film, not the game within the film) is how the movie is willing to play around with expectations and toy with tropes. The setup of the film obviously precludes being able to know who is going to live or die in the film (although an establish homage to Scream 2 makes the first couple of kills obvious). Instead, you're left wondering, and worrying, about all the characters, who are all richly developed and well crafted.

That is, of course, a deviation this film makes from other horror flicks. The Black character here isn't defined simply by being Black (although an amusing sequence does have them all defining just how Black they are, or aren't, to hilarious effect). The film takes its time in the opening act, establishing who they are, what their feelings for each other, and where their journey has taken them over the last 10 years (since the last time all of them were together). That means you end up really liking all these characters and enjoying their company. You don't want them to die, no matter what.

There's is a flaw with that (and spoilers for the last act of the film): the film is so in love with the main cast that it has a hard time letting go as well. Sure, the first two kills in the film are the original party planners, Morgan and Shawn. After that, though, nearly all the main cast survives, giving this film a huge cast but a very low body count. That contributes to a feeling that all these characters have some kind of plot armor, and the film doesn't really deviate from that at all.

That tends to be why I think of this film as more a comedy with horror elements than a true horror/comedy. It's not scary, really, at all. There are moments, sure, but for the most part the film coasts along on low-grade suspense, having more fun hanging out with the characters and enjoying their interactions than ever really worrying about creating scares or thrills. I don't think that's a huge issue, not considering how good the comedy in the film really is, but anyone hoping for something scarier or bloodier won't find that here.

Meanwhile, and without spoiling anything on this front, the eventual reveal of who the mastermind is all along doesn't quite play for me. The film has to do a bit of twisting to explain his big reveal, giving us a long info dump that grinds the last act to a bit of a halt. I think a different mastermind, maybe one that plays on the tropes of the Final Girl, could have been more effective. Maybe if the "Final Girl" were really the lead killer that could have made for a subversive set of scares that would really carry the last act.

Does that detract from the film? Not overly so. I enjoyed my time in this film throughout and even in its slower moments there was still enough going on, enough laughs and character interaction, to paper over any problems. Frankly, I had so much fun with the film in general that I'm already thinking about when I want to watch it again. That's the best sign for a film, the desire it invokes to make you watch it again, and that leads to a strong endorsement from me.

The Blackening is a fun, funny, silly, and occasionally scary comedy with horror elements. It's not perfect, but it is really good, and well worth watching (and then maybe watching again).