The Blackening: The Game of Life (and Death), by Scott Nye
A group of friends travel to a remote house for what should be a relaxing weekend, only something’s a little off, and before they know it things escalate into a fight for their lives. Tale as old as time, and so familiar that Tim Story’s new film The Blackening is at least the second film to use that very premise for a meta-commentary on the genre that still delivers plenty of thrills. Unlike Drew Goddard’s more bluntly-named The Cabin in the Woods, however, Story and screenwriters Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins thought one step further than mere commentary – this one’s got actual jokes. Very funny ones.
The most immediate point of departure from much of the mainstream horror film is quite evident from the title, and the all-black group of friends knows, to varying degrees, that they’re in unusual territory. When the aptly-named Ranger White (Diedrich Bader) checks to make sure the group really is supposed to be there, they all know the potential risk they’re stepping into. They just don’t know what we have already seen – two of their friends, Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and Shawn (Jay Pharoah) arrived the night before, and, intrigued by a very-racist-looking game called The Blackening, were sucked into a life-or-death trivia contest that they lost.
By the time the rest of the group finds the game room, we have a sense of the dynamics that will upend things. Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) is back together with Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), her college sweetheart who treated her none too well. This is unwelcome news to her best friend Dewayne (Perkins), who after years of comforting Lisa through that tumultuous relationship, wants nothing to do with him. King (Melvin Gregg) is also wary of Nnamdi’s regular refrain that he’s a changed man, while Shanika (X Mayo) and Allison (Grace Byers) are more or less just trying to keep the good times on track. That track is already thrown off by the arrival of Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), a nerdy acquaintance everyone seems a bit surprised came on the trip at all.
It’d be easy with this premise to lean too hard into the dramatic arc of the film or too hard into the jokes, and for a good sprint of the first half of this film, I wasn’t sure how seriously we were all supposed to take the, y’know…constant threat of death and all that. Story, Oliver, Perkins, and the cast manage to toe a line almost never achieved by many films since Shaun of the Dead did it so well of delivering very sharp jokes and making a bit of ridiculousness out of their scenario without losing the real threat they’re facing. The violence is often brutal, and the jokes deepen the brutality while delivering laughs (figuring out how much to hug/kiss when one person is covering in blood and brains, for example). The Blackening has a more pointed satirical angle – much of the game within the film is designed to generate conversation around what counts as being “authentically black” in contemporary society – but not so pointed that it misses the mark on its dramatic arc. The socio-political discussion comes as a natural outgrowth of the characters and the world in which they live without the film having to press its thumb on the scale.
Better still, the film isn’t shy about prioritizing its core audience in how it plays. Lionsgate arranged the press screening to include dozens of regular moviegoers down for a free screening, and the predominantly black audience that showed up responded to loads of jokes that went clean over my head. As with any good film that uses referential humor, though, the specificity of the jokes and the cast’s delivery of them sell the humor no matter what. Coupled with some genuinely-savvy thrills and great payoffs, this is a blast to see with an audience.
Story’s filmography is deep with crowd pleasers – whatever the reviews of his Fantastic Four, Think Like a Man, or Ride Along films, he draws big audiences and gets sequels greenlit (including, for Barbershop, virtually a whole cinematic universe). With The Blackening, his first horror-adjacent film, Story demonstrates keen chops for building tension, guiding audience attention within the frame, and delivering on a scare that is exciting, but not so alarming that it undoes the lively comic spirit of the script. It requires a more deft hand than he’s had to employ in the past, one that capitalizes on his success with building ensembles and generating chemistry while honing things a bit tighter in the visual storytelling.
Boasting a really sharp cast (Perkins and Robertson being the key standouts) and a premise it more than delivers on, The Blackening arrives at a great commercial moment for horror films and an uncertain one for comedies. The combination of genres has rarely been better realized, and gives audiences plenty to savor.