THE STORY – Seven friends go away for the weekend, only to find themselves trapped in a cabin with a killer who has a vendetta. They must pit their street smarts and knowledge of horror movies against the murderer to stay alive.
THE CAST – Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler, Melvin Gregg, X Mayo, Dewayne Perkins, Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Jay Pharoah & Yvonne Orji
THE TEAM – Tim Story (Director), Tracy Oliver & Dewayne Perkins (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
The horror genre is one that can take many forms, along with several hyphenated categories that are able to encapsulate it. There is a wide range of stories and tones one can play with, but comedy can often be seen as a nicely-fitted match. After all, when the tension builds to the point where one is terrified at a particular sight, an appropriate response afterward is laughter. It’s the mind’s defense mechanism to combat such anxiety, so pairing these two modes can be quite the alluring exercise. “The Blackening” may lean more on the humorous side, but its roots are solidly placed within the hallmarks of the more terrifying aesthetics. Unfortunately, the results are mostly mundane despite the handful of entertaining moments it provides.
The setup is all-too-familiar, intentionally so. A group of friends finds themselves taking an extended trip out in the wilderness as they stay in some remote housing that may be slightly more lavish than a cabin but fulfills the same prompt. As the party atmosphere starts to settle in, the gang makes an unusual discovery. Tucked away in one of the rooms is a board game, brandishing a racist caricature that seems to have a sentient personality. It taunts them to answer questions related to Black culture and history, with the ultimate penalty being death. It is soon revealed that a masked psychopath is behind this scheme, and the company must put all their wits together to survive the night.
The cast assembled must be an engaging collection in order for any of the material to succeed, and overall there is a talented gathering here. While attention is fairly divided equally among them, Antoinette Robertson has more of a leading role, given the central conflicts with the on-again/off-again fling Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls) and the best friend Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), who resents the blossoming relationship. She’s a solid anchor and has good chemistry with her two close confidants, though Perkins absolutely steals the show from all of them. His presence as what could be the stereotypical gay bestie finds great comedic elements to unearth, consistently funny with every line and look. The same is said for X Mayo as Shanika, the more boisterous component which is always appealing whenever she enters the frame.
There are decent portrayals from the rest of the cast, though none make quite the same impression. Grace Byers and Melvin Gregg have some compelling sequences that further deconstruct the stereotypes that Black people must endure. This is mainly the complicated identity of those who are bi-racial and the prejudged assumption of criminality. The commentary they espouse is more shallow, but they bring a welcomed energy regardless. The one misfire amongst the ensemble is Jermaine Fowler, embodying the socially awkward nerd that heavily leans on the persona of “not Black enough” characteristics. As such, his performance amounts to little more than caricature and is the least dynamic aspect of the film.
When one has as much experience in comedy as director Tim Story does, there is an expectation of a certain grasp of the format. However, his filmography has yet to produce anything that has reached the heights of his debut feature, “Barbershop.” His filmmaking style is ultimately quite uninspired, and even when making a broad comedy, there is very little to create a more captivating portrait. The direction is universally flat and lifeless, giving no sense of momentum for the jokes and set pieces to build upon. He is also shackled by the script from Perkins and Tracy Oliver, which oscillates between smart observations on the political intersections of race in horror storytelling to dull gags with obvious targets. It is a shame that the direction can’t match some of the more engrossing parts that can be found in the script, nor does this screenplay provide any revelatory observations to make it have staying power.
Comedy will always be a subjective force, and what may suit one person’s particular taste may not suit another. “The Blackening” has a sturdy framework to build from, and its analysis of the Black perspective in this genre is endlessly fascinating and full of potential. Yet, that is mostly squandered for cheap jokes and a hollow analysis that struggles to maintain an intriguing environment. Despite some inviting turns from the actors, the film barely manages to stay afloat as it wades through so many ponderous scenes. There can be a good time had, but only in small spurts and not enough to become a worthy endeavor.