Parody filmmaking is a dying art form, and that’s probably for the best. While films like Airplane! and most Mel Brooks films break the mold, most others range from average (despite some memorable scenes and breakout stars, most Scary Movie films don’t hold up) to horrific (Disaster Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans all make downing a bottle of pills feel like the lesser of two evils).
With this knowledge in mind, my hopes were not high entering The Blackening, whose trailers all played like an already-bad SNL sketch stretched out to 90 minutes. As it turns out, The Blackening is far weirder than I could have ever imagined – mostly in a good way. While the film’s structure is exactly as I feared, the story they built these jokes around actually has the heart to carry the film – something most parody films could never dream about.
Seven college friends – best friends Dewayne (co-writer Dewayne Perkins) and Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), Lisa’s other friend Allison (Grace Byers), party girl Shanika (X Mayo), Lisa’s ex Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), his best friend King (Melvin Gregg), and former outcast Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) – all gather at a cabin in the woods to celebrate Juneteenth. Former feelings and fights have been straining the group as of late, but for the most part, the gang wards off bad vibes with booze and several rounds of Spades. That is, until, they find a secret room in the cabin.
Behind a locked door, the group finds a board game, along with a televised masked figure straight out of a horror film. The game, titled “The Blackening” – complete with a talking Blackface Jim Crow centerpiece – asks questions about Black history and pop culture. The goal is to determine which of the gang is the blackest – for you see, in a horror movie, the Black characters die first. And so begins a game of survival for the group, to see who, if any of them, can survive the night.
The strangest, most exciting discovery with The Blackening is that the story itself is actually interesting. The entire point of a parody film is that the premise is merely a vessel for jokes. No one remembers the mystery Frank Drebin has to solve in Naked Gun, or who the killer is in Scary Movie, or why the plane is crashing in Airplane! The narrative is merely a thinly constructed rack on which to hang jokes and punchlines. However, far smarter than the average bear, The Blackening creates a world and story that audiences can invest themselves in, which makes whatever stakes – or jokes, as the case may be – feel all the more earned.
That’s not to say the mystery here is all that intriguing. Indeed, there’s a good chance you can guess what’s going on and who the killer is within the first thirty minutes of the movie, if not necessarily the motivation. But everything else going on is rather interesting. The inner workings of this friend group – their inside jokes, which friends are closer to who, and yes, their fights and conflicts, are all intriguing enough on their own.
I was shocked to discover, before even reaching the slasher film at the center, how invested I was in these characters and their personal lives. I felt Dewayne’s pain at watching his friend get back together with an ex who has hurt her so often in the past. Simultaneously, I believed in Nnamdi’s struggles to turn over a new leaf. Shanika is a horror film cliché who never feels like a prop – she is a wholeheartedly real character in her own right. And all of these conflicts are elevated once the life-and-death stakes of a masked murderer are introduced.
In the film’s cleverest joke, the murderer makes them debate amongst themselves who the blackest member is, planning to off the “winner.” What starts as a funny joke playing off of stereotypes begins to analyze both the characters as they stand and wider issues of societal self-policing. Allison uses the group’s constant mockery of her biracial heritage to save herself. Dewayne’s defense is the homophobic remarks he’s experienced within the Black community. Characters attempt to throw others under the bus solely due to their own grudges. It’s a bit that’s quick on the jokes, shows us the inner workings of the characters and their logic, and offers commentary on the world at large.
It all comes together surprisingly well under the deft hand of Tim Story, a veteran filmmaker whose past works range from cult hits like Barbershop and Think Like a Man to oft-maligned kids’ films (perhaps unjustly so) like 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2020’s underrated Tom and Jerry (yes, I’m speaking my truth on that one). Story proves himself a surprisingly strong horror director – his filmmaking accurately parodies the look of modern indie horror films like You’re Next. As the film goes on, he manages to pay homage to films as varied as Saw, Scream, and Scary Movie, and yet he never fully leans into parody. It keeps the film from feeling like a cheap gimmick – the jokes are there, as are the playful allusions, and yet it never cheapens the story it’s trying to tell.
Now, with all that said, it should be noted that when the film does become a parody or a skit, it ends up veering into Saturday Night Live sketch territory – and I mean this in ways both good and bad. There are certainly plenty of laughs to be had, and the incisive moments earn their chortles, ranging from a Living Single joke to every character knowing full well not to split up or run towards the creepy noise in the night. But once you get the joke, that’s pretty much it. There’s nothing new that can come out of it, just varying degrees of the same punchline. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just protrudes far more when juxtaposed with the group’s already-humorous dynamic.
Thankfully, even when the film occasionally detours into predictable, well-trodden territory, the ever-game cast fully commits with enough conviction to keep the audience invested. There are no misses within the cast – not even the cameos from Jay Pharoah and Yvonne Orji, here to provide the ceremonial Big Name Opening Deaths to open the slasher correctly. Three actors in particular stand out as names to watch going forward. Grace Byers starts the film as the brains and ends up with a very funny third-act reversal. Melvin Gregg takes on the stereotype of group stoner and plays him as something deeper, smarter, and ultimately funnier. And as the closest thing to our Final Girl, Antoinette Robertson is funny and vibrant and real.
Cowriter Dewayne Perkins spends most of the film trying to find his footing as a fully-fledged actor, but he’s not too far off – he has a knack for line deliveries that will surely make the audience laugh. X Mayo doesn’t have much to do other than be the group’s crazy party girl, but she plays it well – she’s certainly got more humor and charm than the last ten versions of this stereotype I’ve seen. Walls feels the least dynamic of the core unit, he does feel lived-in as a cocky former player trying to turn over a new leaf. And as the outcast of the group, Jermaine Fowler earns big laughs borrowing an impression from his mentor Eddie Murphy: that of the “white Black man.” It’s an old caricature, but Fowler’s talented enough to breathe new life into it.
The Blackening is something of an early summer surprise. It’s not great by any means – nor does it try to be. Yet it takes a premise already done to death (comedy/horror parody), adds in a social commentary aspect, and surprisingly still emerges as not only entertaining, but fresh to boot. It’s enough to make you frustrated at all the bad parodies and bad social commentary comedies that have emerged in recent years. As it turns out, it wasn’t the material that wasn’t working. They all just lacked a creative team as committed as Story, Perkins, and the ever-game cast that keeps The Blackening smart, funny, and entertaining throughout.
The Blackening is now playing in theaters nationwide