The feature-length adaptation of the satirical horror short falls short on scares and laughs.
The Blackening is a horror-satire based on a popular 2018 short film of the same name. It mercilessly skewered the genre conceit that the Black character is always the first to die—a notion so familiar that this year saw the publication of an examination of Black-related horror films entitled The Black Guy Dies First. To do so, it presented a scenario in which all the potential victims are Black. They argue about who among them is truly the Blackest while downplaying their own ethnicity to survive. (“I qualified for the Winter Olympics.”)
Sure, it was essentially a one-joke premise. But it still managed to milk both horror cliches and cultural stereotypes for plenty of inspired laughs. Additionally, at only about four minutes long, it was over and done before it could grow repetitive. Alas, that is not the case with this feature-length variation. It tries to stretch the premise out for 92 highly superfluous additional minutes that add almost nothing of note. All that’s new is a growing sense of tedium.
Friends who have drifted apart for several years host a reunion of sorts to celebrate Juneteenth, renting a large and isolated home in the woods. As they arrive, old tensions begin to rise amongst the group, mostly revolving around the decision by lawyer Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) to reunite with her womanizing ex Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls). The animosity proves intense enough the group hardly seems to notice two of them have gone missing.
Eventually, they—including gay best pal Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), bi-racial Allison (Grace Byers), former gang banger King (Melvin Gregg), super-sassy Shanika (X Mayo), and mostly forgettable nerd Clifton (Jermaine Fowler)—end up locked in the game room. There, an unknown entity forces them to play The Blackening. The board game forces them to answer Black-oriented trivia questions (“Name five black people who appeared on Friends”) with dire consequences for wrong answers.
You may question how a film could hope to sustain that admittedly slender premise for 90 minutes without getting old. The answer is simple. It doesn’t. After reaching the point where they begin bickering over who is the Blackest—in ways not nearly as amusing as the short devised—the film mostly abandons that concept. Instead, it turns into a standard-issue horror spoof where all the jokes make knowing reference to slasher movie bromides. Audiences have been here before, in everything from the semi-immortal satire Student Bodies to all the meta-slasher exercise that emerged in the wake of Scream to last year’s tedious Bodies Bodies Bodies. All the clichés—and their well-worn gags—are trotted out as our characters try to survive and unravel their masked antagonist’s identity. Sadly, even if you’ve never seen a slasher film before, solving the mystery doesn’t prove taxing.
[The Blackening] tries to stretch the premise out for 92 highly superfluous additional minutes that add almost nothing of note.
Co-writers Perkins (one of the original’s creators) and Tracy Oliver have labored mightily to make it work as a feature. Unfortunately, their additions—mostly involving various interpersonal relationships and watching the characters skulking through darkened woods and corridors—fail to inject much life into the proceedings. Outside of the occasional spiky one-liner and inspired bit about Rosa Parks, the jokes also mostly fall flat. Director Tim Story handles the few jump scares and bits of goriness thrown into the mix with all the verve and grace that he brought to such earlier films as Taxi, Fantastic Four, and that Tom & Jerry movie that you almost certainly forgot until I just reminded you. The cast is attractive and seemingly game for anything. Still, not even they can quite manage to sell material that’s never as smart, savage, or subversive as it thinks.
What makes The Blackening so frustrating is a movie making fun of Black horror conventions offers any number of possibilities. I could imagine one taking either the intelligent and incisive approach of someone like Jordan Peele or the plain silliness in the manner of the Wayans Brothers with their Scary Movie franchise. The short negotiated both approaches and scored plenty of big laughs as a result. By comparison, this extended version lacks wit, insight, or tension. In the end, viewers will be more annoyed than amused.
The Blackening doesn’t want to play a game starting June 15 in theatres.