The Black guy always dies first in horror movies. For far too long, this was the case in the genre. They may not have always been "first" each time, but throughout the history of slasher films, you’d be hard-pressed to find examples where the Black character wasn’t killed off. That’s if the film had a POC at all in a horribly whitewashed industry. With cutthroat humor and hilarious performances, director Tim Story’s The Blackening slays this racist trope in ways that will have you dying laughing.
Written by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins, The Blackening follows a group of Black friends who have gathered at a cabin in the woods to celebrate Juneteenth. But when they discover a vindictive killer has set-up a deadly game for them to play, they’ll have to use their wits and horror movie knowledge to stay alive.
It’s been a while since I’ve laughed this hard during a movie.
Chock full of references, The Blackening gets going on the horror commentary from the opening frame, in which the film states it is “based on true events…that never happened”. Countless slashers have begun with the false premise that they are inspired by some real-life incident, while having almost nothing to do with said tragedy. And The Blackening isn’t about leading on the viewer. This film drops nothing but hysterical truth bombs.
As the premise suggests, The Blackening acts as both a middle-finger to “the black guy dies first” history of slasher films, while pointing out just how mind-numbingly stupid white characters often are in these movies. The cast doesn’t go outside to investigate a strange noise or leave valuable weapons behind as so many Final Girls have done in the past (that last one drives me insane). These characters are smart. They’re capable. And they’re tough as nails. They leave you cheering, unlike the typical slasher movie moron that makes you as frustrated as an adult playing a simple board game with a toddler. I say this lovingly, by the way. I adore those destined-for-a-body-bag fools. But it never gets old seeing The Blackening reference again and again all of the usual ways white characters get themselves picked off.
Razor-sharp dialogue would be nothing without an entertaining cast to deliver it, which The Blackening has in spades. Each and every actor brings their A game, with all of them getting in at least a good laugh or two in a film that’s loaded with gut-splitting humor. Writer Dewayne Perkins especially stands out as scene-stealer Dewayne, consistently grabbing the moment by the balls with pitch-perfect delivery. Witty writing and outstanding performances ensure you desperately want all of these characters to make it out alive (except maybe for Trump-voting Clifton, with a drop-dead laughing portrayal from Jermaine Fowler). That all makes for an effective slasher film, because you’re rooting for all of these characters the whole way. Like the tagline says, they can’t all die first, but someone has to.
Characters and humor aside, what makes The Blackening a less effective slasher is just about everything else. Story’s film is ninety-percent comedy, ten-percent horror. Some of that comes from a been there, done that premise. A group of friends. Stranded at a cabin in the woods with a killer who might remind you of a racist Jigsaw. The difference here is of course the fact that this tired tale is told through a Black perspective (which works well), and the introduction of an offensive table-top game dubbed The Blackening (which doesn’t work so well). A game that tests the groups knowledge of Black culture for arbitrary points, there’s not much to this part of the premise, but it does open up the opportunity for some of the film’s best laughs. Yet as The Blackening goes on, the game itself becomes forgotten and leads to the middle sagging a bit. Which is too bad, because the gameplay hits hard on themes of pride in race and supporting each other. I just wish it could have been worked in more without feeling like an after-thought.
For as often as The Blackening leans into the absurd, it also underwhelms on the horror elements. Outside of a gruesome moment early on that teases a gory affair, the film pulls way back on the blood-letting, lessening the impact of kills that happen later on. Featuring a killer hunting with a crossbow, there’s a whole lot of arrow shooting, which grows repetitive the closer we get to a ridiculous finish. Perhaps most frustrating though is that the film offers a pretty detailed map to the destination from the beginning. There aren’t many surprises here in terms of plot, but at least I can’t say the same for all of the absurd ways characters respond to each new conflict.
The Blackening may not be scary, or bloody, or all that suspenseful, but holy hell, is it funny. Think of it like a less outrageous Scary Movie. Story keeps the film grounded in reality while ruthlessly slicing and dicing Black stereotypes in horror for maximum laughs. It’s the kind of movie that makes your face hurt because you can’t stop grinning. Sure, the premise itself is a little stale, but the approach is fresh, fun, and guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser. Horror fans are going to have a bloody blast with this.
The Blackening arrives in theaters June 16th from Lionsgate.
By Matt Konopka