The Blackening is an amiable throwback to who-dies-next? horror movies of yore, with a take on race trying to ignore the fact we live in the post-Get Out era.
There is what you would expect from a cabin-in-the-woods horror, including a pre-credits death or two, followed by the traditional re-establishing shot of a new batch of people winding their way towards the same destination in one of those aerial shots of a car from way overhead, the isolated vehicle moving through the vastness of the encircling forest. Is someone watching?
But these are not booze-chugging, drug-popping white people – long-legged girls, chunky jocks, a dweeb or two – instead a gaggle of black friends on their ten-year reunion out in the back of beyond, where they will be subjected to violence and horror on a familiar scale, plus jokes and observations about the role race plays in the horror movie. The tagline – We Can’t All Die First – kind of says it all.
In “how much plot do you need?” style, the gang assemble at the beautifully appointed cabin, where one of them, King (Melvin Gregg), is already being hassled by the authorities as they arrive. The park ranger simply can’t believe that King would be legitimately in this part of the world, at this cabin. He must be a thief or something. Because…?
From here, the re-entry of the board game The Blackening into the plot. This is to be found in the cabin’s obligatory isolated room, behind a locked door, and was responsible for the pre-credits mayhem and bloodshed. Now it continues where it left off, its big, caricature Negro doll face asking disembodied racially focused questions of the assembled – get all of them right and one of them will live, get one of them wrong and she dies.
In how many seasons of Fresh Prince of Bel Air did the dark-skinned Aunt Viv appear before being replaced by the lighter-skinned one? Name five black actors who appeared in Friends, and so on.
Stalking about in the background somewhere, an enforcer with a crossbow wearing a racist re-imagining of the Leatherface mask from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, killing when questions are not answered or orders not followed.
The “who’s blackest?” sequence is the funniest bit, and also the most on point, since here the person deemed blackest by the group will become its scapegoat, dying so the others may go free. But what does “black” mean? There’s the very dark-skinned guy with the African name, Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls). Allison (Grace Byers), the young woman with a white dad. Or maybe it’s King, who has married a white woman. Or how about Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), the guy who admits he voted for Trump… twice!
This is a talented bunch of actors, likeable, and there’s not a bad performance among them, but Dewayne Perkins should be namechecked separately – he’s not only a limber and lively presence as… er… Dewayne but he also co-wrote the screenplay (with Tracy Oliver) and is part of the 3Peat comedy troupe who originated the idea in a short from 2018. You get the idea – this is his show.
Director Tim Story’s direction is invisible, which is to say he catches precisely the look and tone of the “who dies next?” horror movie, the dark corners, the jump scares, the sense of rising panic.
See the Wayans’ brothers’ five-film Scary Movie franchise for the most obvious source of inspiration, though Scooby Doo lurks in there too. It’s an enjoyable movie as far as it goes, but more jokes and more horror might have made for more fun, and so would more of an understanding that a lot of the material is not as cutting edge as it would have been if Jordan Peele weren’t active in the world, having definitively reshaped expectations of race in mainstream horror three times in last five years with Get Out, Us and Nope.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023