Excuse the personal aside, but I have always insisted the two cinematic genres that need to be watched with a big crowd are comedy and horror. Often bedfellows, the appreciation of these films increases exponentially with the right crowd. Cinema is a social experience, and both laughing and gasping in terror are group activities. The Blackening brings these two communal genres and it is best watched in a large and eager crowd.
The film played TIFF in 2022 in the Midnight Madness program. Based on the 3Peat Comedy sketch, the film takes that four-minute premise and expands it out to a feature-length horror comedy. Director Tim Story (Barbershop) balances laughs and scares at a swift pace throughout.
The general premise of The Blackening is intentionally cliche. A group of old college friends head to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of reconnection, card games, and a few Class A drugs. But rather than a literal cabin they are in a finely decorated, cozy mansion and the weekend in question is Juneteenth. Not just any Juneteenth, it is the tenth anniversary of their last hang.
While this house is befitted with plenty of bedrooms and a fireplace, it also has a game room behind a bright green door. When Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and Shawn (Jay Pharoah) get up to the temporary, remote abode they decide to inspect the room and play the game already out on the room’s center table. That game is called The Blackening and it is unlike any other game they have seen. Without reading the rules or even questioning it too deeply, the game itself prompts them to play by talking through the prominent and highly offensive sambo face smack dab in the middle of the board. Like so many horror films, this first encounter with the game does not go well for them, and when the others start arriving at the house they are unaware of the danger awaiting them.
Cliche, right? That is all a part of the plan. The Blackening anticipates a certain level of fluency in the history of horror films and richly rewards the audience for their knowledge. The characters are completely aware of the situation they are in and have seen what happens next in these movies. Even before things start getting violent they joke about the odds of black people surviving in the woods and even make Jason Vorhees “ki ki ki ma ma ma” noises at one another to try to freak each other out.
Beyond this metatext and cultural awareness, The Blackening functions pretty well as a horror film itself. There is the basic structure of a classic slasher at the core of the film, and it does not hesitate from tossing jump scares or bloody encounters as the characters are fighting for their lives. The plot is a touch thin and some of the turns easily predictable, but given it is one big ode to slasher films which also had thin plots and no unforeseen moves, the story choices make a little more sense.
On top of all this horror goodness is an even better comedy. The jokes start early and do not stop coming throughout the entire running time. The one-off quips are hilarious when they shoot out, but the relationships between the characters is where the really funny stuff comes from. This group has known each other for at least a decade, and the banter and chemistry between them all on screen feels natural. Only old friends could rib one another like this and boy they certainly do. Whether they are arguing which one of them is the blackest or retelling stories from their college days, the affection they feel for their friends is clear and hilarious.
Good pacing, high production value, and pitch-perfect performances, The Blackening is a delightful slurry of horror, comedy, and a dash of social commentary. All of these are best watched in a cinema packed with fellow cinefiles who are ready for a good time.