Producers: Tim Story, Tracy Oliver, E. Brian Dobbins, Marcei A. Brown, Jason Clark and Sharla Sumpter Bridgett Director: Tim Story Screenplay: Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins Cast: Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Dewayne Perkins, Grace Byers, X Mayo, Melvin Gregg, Jermaine Fowler, Yvonne Orji, Jay Pharoah, Diedrich Bader and James Preston Rogers Distributor: Lionsgate
A good idea is squandered in Tim Story’s black-centric spoof of claustrophobic murder mysteries in which a group of characters are trapped in a remote locale with a maniacal killer—think “Bodies Bodies Bodies” with an African-American cast. Unfortunately it’s more Wayans brothers than Jordan Peele, not scary, or funny, or insightful enough to fulfill the premise’s potential.
The set-up is an old standby: a bunch of college classmates come to an isolated rental house for a reunion. First to show up are Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and Shawn (Jay Pharaoh), who arranged the get-together; they enter a self-identified Game Room, where they find lots of fun stuff but get locked in. Most prominently displayed on a table is a game called The Blackening, with a board dominated by a hideous plastic Black Sambo face that spouts out a question about black pop culture and demands a correct answer before a timer runs out—or else. In their case it’s the “or else” that prevails.
Then the others come along. Sassy, brassy Shanika (X Mayo) bumps into geeky Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) at a roadside store presided over by a glowering clerk (James Preston Rogers) before they make their way to the house. Driving up together are Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) and her flamboyant gay best friend Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins, one of the co-writers), who’s seething over the presence in the back seat of her cheating but hunky ex Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), whom she’s giving another chance. Completing the group are smart-girl Allison (Grace Byers) and mellow ex-gangsta King (Melvin Gregg).
After some perfunctory, mildly catty banter among them—and surprise among the others that Clifton was invited by Morgan—the crew eventually find their way to the Game Room too. There they too are locked in, learn the unpleasant fates of Morgan and Shawn, and are forced to play the game, which is accompanied periodically by an old television that comes on to show the Sambo head backed up by some minstrel show music. They quickly realize that failure to answer before time runs out means being shot with a crossbow by a hulking masked man.
The movie has some success sending up genre stereotypes—the advertising tagline, based on the cliché that in the usual run of horror movies, the solitary black character is always the first to die—is, if outdated, still true enough to get a laugh. And the rat-a-rat back-and-forth among the characters is sometimes sharp, though too often merely puerile. The introduction of a forest ranger (Diedrich Bader) who’s even identified by one of the group as a potential white savior, or killer (and whose name is White to boot) is amusing, if hardly terribly creative, too.
The writing also gets points for trying, at least, to cut deeper than mere jokiness. The game’s questions can be revealing about society’s expectations about black people, and they get especially nasty when it demands that the characters choose “the blackest” of them to be sacrificed. That’s a particular dig at Allison, whose father is white, and King, who’s married a white woman, though when the decision is reached it’s on other grounds.
But while the comic elements are sporadically amusing, the mystery falls completely flat. Any reasonably savvy moviegoer—especially those knowledgeable in horror tropes—will know who the ultimate villain is by the halfway point, since the script resorts to a device to conceal it that’s transparently ineffectual. It also resorts to a reveal in the last act so dumb it’s not worth talking about.
Worse, all the stuff regarding the murders is messily constructed, poorly choreographed and clumsily shot by scripters Perkins and Tracy Oliver, director Story, cinematographer Todd A. Dos Reis and editor Peter S. Elliot. Many of the sequences of the characters scurrying about—dividing themselves into two groups to allow for more scenes of mayhem, of course—are so murky and ineptly staged that they become laughable for all the wrong reasons. Throughout all the performances are wildly over-the-top, with Perkins, Mayo and Bader especially broad, and Dexter Story’s score insistently irritating.
With sharper writing and better direction, “The Blackening” could have been a real winner. And even with its lack of cleverness, it could register with viewers looking for a midnight-movie sort of communal experience. But overall it ends up as a missed opportunity.