The Blackening, Tim Story’s horror-comedy about a group of Black friends on a weekend getaway at an ill-fated cabin in the woods, feels like a test case for a bunch of different experiments. Released digitally only weeks after it landed in theaters, it became the latest recent film where the rental release and box-office take were in direct competition. It’s also an unusual balancing act between snark and substance; while the comedy is broad and often highly self-aware, the script just as often slips in sincere points about race relations, Black culture, and particularly Black friendship.
But above all, it feels like Story and co-writers Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins used the movie to experiment with how far they could push the structure of a typical horror scenario and still keep an audience on board. In the process, they do something daring for a studio genre movie. In retrospect, it feels absolutely necessary for the kind of story they’re telling, and for the specific balance they’re aiming for between humor and horror. It’s certainly a subversive way of approaching a slasher movie.
But as the movie is unfolding, their approach becomes more unsettling than the horror-movie tropes themselves, because the story is so unconventional. The Blackening goes somewhere horror movies normally just don’t go.
[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for The Blackening.]
The movie’s premise has eight friends reuniting for the first time since college, for a Juneteenth getaway at a remote rural cabin. There are a few tensions in the group: Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) is once again dating Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), who repeatedly cheated on her during their years of on-and-off dating. Knowing her flamboyant gay best friend Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins) hates Nnamdi for all the pain he’s caused her, Lisa hides the rekindled relationship from Dewayne — and neglects to tell him Nnamdi will be at the reunion.
King (Melvin Gregg) is repeatedly described as a “former gangster,” with a past that seems to make the others uncomfortable, though the movie doesn’t offer many details. He’s also married to a white woman. King and Allison (Grace Byers), who has a white father, both come in for some teasing because of their proximity to whiteness. The ball-busting humor aimed at them is the type that masks real social discomfort or disapproval, even if it’s usually followed a casual “Ah, I’m just fuckin’ with you.”
Like any horror movie featuring a big cast of friends in an isolated location, and mysterious figures looming in the background amid ominous music, The Blackening openly invites the audience to wonder who in this group is most narratively vulnerable, who’s going to die first, and who might survive the movie. The movie’s tagline, “We can’t all die first,” mocks the old trope where characters of color go down first in any elimination-style movie. But it also raises the obvious question: OK, so who in this group will make it to the finale?
From the start, it seems like there are clear answers. Nnamdi’s lies and his casualness about breaking Lisa’s heart makes him the kind of morally suspect character who’s most disposable in a horror film. Shanika (X Mayo) shows up to the friend gathering late, gets the least backstory, and feels like the biggest character cliché. King is the only one with a gun, and he initially seems like he’d be the most capable in a conflict — the type of character who needs to be eliminated to make the other characters more exposed.
But the filmmakers have a completely different agenda than the usual cast-attrition thriller that would have this group whittled down one by one. Their big subversion of horror movies: No one in the friend group dies. They eliminate the villains one by one, and they all live to smoke up and debate the future together at the end of the movie. It’s a weird way to run a horror story. It’s also remarkably cheering.
The Blackening isn’t a death-free horror movie. The racist white rednecks who were stalking the group both get got, and so does the scheming (and heavily foreshadowed) secret mastermind behind the whole cabin-in-the-woods scenario. The local white lawman whose affiliation is still a little unclear by the end of the movie certainly seems to die as well.
An opening sequence introduces the other two members of the group, organizer Morgan (Insecure’s Yvonne Orji) and her significant other Shawn (Jay Pharoah), who run afoul of the villains early, and have to die to prove the situation is serious. In one of The Blackening’s best subtle gags, they first talk about Jada Pinkett Smith’s and Omar Epps’ characters dying early in Scream 2, probably because the producers couldn’t afford to keep the cast’s more famous actors around for long — at which point Orji and Pharoah exchange a meaningful, evocative glance, communicating that they know their own status as comparatively high-profile actors means they’re about to follow suit.
Their deaths are the only possible break in what seems like a crucial pattern for the movie — they’re the only Black characters who potentially die at a white person’s hands. Even then, it isn’t entirely clear who takes either of them down; Shawn is shot by someone off screen, and we don’t actually know how or when Morgan dies. It’s entirely possible that the movie’s one Black villain gets them both.
That winds up feeling crucial to The Blackening’s comedy. As the movie unfolds without the usual series of escalating deaths, it starts to feel like Story and the writers are yanking the audience’s chain by not giving them what they expect, or possibly preserving the characters for an eventual bloodbath. But they’re really preserving the film’s delicate tension. Every horror-comedy has to navigate the balance between jokes and drama, and most either keep the horror side of the equation lighter (nobody is meant to care deeply or personally about the characters who die in, say, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil), or limit the comedy in specific ways. (Jordan Peele’s movies use it particularly carefully to puncture some of the more outrageous aspects of his films.)
The Blackening leans hard into the comedy side, with a ton of fast-paced, pointed banter about topics as light as Black people’s relationship with Friends, and as heavy as a series of dialogues about who really gets to call themselves Black, and what that label really means. But Story and the writers remain aware of the movie’s racial dynamics at all times. And that means being aware that in 2023 in particular, it’d be hard to laugh over a well-timed one-liner about Keke Palmer’s Twitter while watching white supremacists successfully murder Black people for sport.
Horror fans who are more into the genre for exceptional gore effects, gnarly kills, and other extreme shocks may not spark to The Blackening. The movie might land oddly even with more mainstream audiences who are used to bigger tensions than this film brings in, and bigger catharsis as a result. But by the final shot, the movie’s approach feels unusually generous and kind to this goofy ensemble, as if the filmmakers value the characters, their humanity, and their relationships more than horror-movie directors normally do. The Blackening is a strange movie, and often a very silly one. But the creators can at least boast that they’ve put something on screen that horror fans don’t see often, and won’t be expecting.