The horror parody is nothing new; go back to the 1930’s and you’ve got The Old Dark House or The Cat and the Canary, films offering a spin on a venerable, cobwebbed genre which was already more than familiar enough to audiences to take it. The advent of the Airplane films and various other p*ss-takes led directly to Scary Movie franchise, and a sub-genre of specific parodies aimed at black audiences, including A Haunted House and its sequel. These films tended to be heavier on sexism and fart gags than actual social commentary, but Jordan Peele’s Get Out elevated the black history sub-text above the text, offering both the chills and the margin notes that audiences seem to desire.
Director Tim Story was working with the same post-modern tropes on his popular Ride Along, Barbershop and Think Like A Man movies, and moves to top Peele with The Blackening, an ingeniously conceived parody of horror ideas based on a 2018 short. ‘We can’t all die first,’ says the tagline on the poster, which portrays an all black cast. The idea is simple enough; a group head out to a remote cabin in the words to celebrate Juneteenth in a narcotic haze with mushrooms, ecstasy and a few joints. But when a serial killer starts bumping them off one by one, who should die, and in what order? It’s been a white-media legacy trope that a black character would be the first in the cast to die, but what if they’re all black?
The Blackening doubles down on this observance of genre norms with an opening sequence in which SNL’s Jay Pharaoh and Yvonne Orji discover a board game in the cabin with the same title of the film. With a racist caricature at its centre, The Blackening is a game that ‘runs on racism’ and is based on answering pop culture questions about black representation in the media; it’s a parody of Jigsaw in the Saw films that suggests that there’s sadistic cruelty in expecting anyone to identify black characters in the notoriously white tv show Friends. The Blackening doesn’t really aim for the intensity of a horror film, there’s only good-natured chat for the first half hour, and the killers’ methods are rather plain You’re Next crossbow attacks, despitced without much tension. But the real horror is the notion of betrayal from within your own social group; as with Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, scorn is offered for a character who ‘voted for Trump’ not once, but twice. ‘I’ve never been so happy to see a white saviour!’ a character remarks when a Ranger shows up at the front door, and The Blackening works best when subverting existing clichés with a caustic modern slant; X Mayo’s Shanika is the stand-out in an ensemble cast including Grace Byers, Melvin Gregg and DewaynePerkins.
‘I think we have to play the game,’ one character concludes, and that’s probably the take-away here; even if The Blackening doesn’t offer much new as a horror film, it does have value as a smart comedy that takes names and makes a number of trenchant points. The characters find that their understanding of the nuances of racial issues in the media takes second place to being chased and hunted by an unseen menace, and that idea in itself makes The Blackening relevant to the era of corrupted social media control. Story’s film is superior to the one-note feel of previous attempts to make black horror parody a thing at the box office, even if it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to qualify as a horror film in its own right. With certain pasty-white factions keen to monetise and then ignite a race war in the US for their own personal gain, The Blackening’s self-aware anxiety about where all this is going feels like a reasonable, urgent response.