‘The Blackening’ turns traditional horror tropes on their head

'The Blackening' turns traditional horror tropes on their head | Soho House

By putting Black people and culture at the centre of the narrative, Tim Story and Dewayne Perkins’ new release reframes – and reclaims ¬– the classic slasher

Saturday 26 August 2023 By Hanna Flint

I love horror movies. But maybe my biggest pet peeve is when characters films that take place in contemporary times act as though they’ve never seen a horror movie before. Thankfully, there was no danger of that with The Blackening, which follows a group of African-American pals trying to survive the night who deliberately set out not to make the same pitfalls as your typical white horror movie characters.

Directed by Fantastic Four and Ride Along’s Tim Story, from a script by Dewayne Perkins (who also stars) and Tracy Oliver, The Blackening is adapted from the 2018 horror short written by Perkins and his 3Peat comedy troupe. It similarly grapples with the stereotypical depictions of Black characters in horror movies but also what it means to be Black in American culture to hilarious effect. 

I make that distinction because as I watched this film at Vue West End, with a predominantly Black British audience, there were certain jokes about one character, Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), being more African than Black that didn’t quite land. As my mate Edwin whispered to me after one particular jab, ‘I don’t get it, all Black people are from Africa.’ But for the majority of the film, The Blackening had the audience gagging for breath because of how raucously funny each scene proved to be. 

Using the conventional ‘cabin in the woods’ setup, the film begins in a similar fashion to the Scream franchise. In this case, the cold open involves Yvonne Orji and Jay Pharoah’s Morgan and Shawn, who are preparing for the arrival of their college friends to celebrate Juneteenth – an emancipation holiday for the African-American community – with drink and drug-fuelled game playing. 

They’ve rented the isolated property from a white family, but in the basement the couple find the eponymous game, which is designed to test players’ knowledge of Black history and pop culture. ‘Name a Black character who survives until the end of the movie,’ a card asks, as a Jigsaw-like gamemaster monitors them directly through the game – and a TV set – to make sure they comply. Get an answer wrong, you die. By the time the rest of their crew have arrived, Morgan and Shawn are nowhere to be found.

'The Blackening' turns traditional horror tropes on their head | Soho House

At first, the gang are oblivious to the horror that has already gone down as they contend with their own friendship drama. Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) and Nnamdi have secretly rekindled their romance despite him cheating on her in college. She’s keeping that from her best friend Dewayne who disapproves while Allison (Grace Byers) contends with jokes about being biracial and King being a gangster who married a white woman. Then there's the life of the party Shanika (X Mayo) who bumps into the awkward Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) on the way to the cabin, and soon they’re all questioning why he was invited to the cookout.

They play Spades, get drunk and do MDMA – because it wouldn’t be a friendship if they weren’t able to take the mick out of each other and judge their life choices. But as soon as they discover the psycho killer’s intentions through the games, the gauntlet is dropped and they refuse to play by his rules – or the tropes of the horror genre; when the plot throws one in, like seeing what’s behind an ominous creaking door or trusting a white park ranger to save them, the characters do the opposite. 

Perkins is especially hilarious with his perfectly timed side-eyes, cutting digs and high antics, and I loved every look of disdain towards Nnamdi, even when the stakes are its highest. One of my favourite lines is when he questions Lisa's candlestick weapon choice with a Clue (Cluedo) reference. This pacy film is bursting with Black pop culture references, from Set It Off to Nas, and while the scares might be a bit on the short side, the humour is abundant, with consistent laughs – even as the characters’ actions get more deranged and the crossbow killer has them careening towards a sociocultural ending that really examines the gatekeeping of Blackness within the community. 

The film is the natural heir to the Wayan Brothers’ Scary Movie franchise, but its affection for various slasher films is evident. By putting Black people at the centre of the story, rather than the margins, The Blackening continues the reclamation of horror for Black culture. 

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