Rated R for language, drug use, a horror-movie amount of violence and gore, and some racial truths that need to be talked about. It's not the most gory movie in the world, but it is about a slasher in the woods. I mean, if you can keep that in mind, also remind yourself that it is a comedy. Oh, there's also an off-screen sex scene that characters talk about. A well-deserved, but mild R.
DIRECTOR: Tim Story
C'mon, Tim Story! I keep rooting for you and then we get movies like this. Honestly, I'm a guy who quasi-sorta likes Tim Story movies. But these are always movies that are increasingly difficult movies to defend. They really aren't good. I'm sorry. I know. Again, I'm always in the camp that, if you like these movies, you should continue liking these movies. I started this whole paragraph by saying that there are Tim Story movies that I like that no one else likes. But all that being said...c'mon.
The reason why I'm so frustrated with The Blackening is that all of the elements were there. If I summarized this movie for you, you would think that this sounded absolutely rad. I know that when I watched the trailer, I thought that this was going to be a pretty good time. I mean, I knew from moment one that it wasn't going to be a Jordan Peele movie. I also understanding that it is wildly unfair to compare any Black-led horror film to have that level of prestige cinema behind it. But I also don't really think that The Blackening would exist if Jordan Peele wasn't out there absolutely crushing every time he gets involved in something.
Again, let me go back to the short pitch that makes this movie sound amazing. A group of Black friends rents a cabin in the woods to celebrate Juneteenth after not seeing each other since college. By the end of the night, the group must survive a deadly game that is tied to their sense of racial identity and friendship. Okay, I'm overdramatizing it for a reason. It's because that idea is amazing and I would absolutely watch it. But The Blackening, like many of Tim Story's films, is a movie that is so underbaked that we are left with the elements of a great film, but are given something that is borderline inedible. Tim Story, you have a decent control of the camera. You have a cast that is (for the most part) incredibly likable. But then comes the thing that absolutely ruins the movie: the term "Horror-comedy."
Horror-comedies weren't really a thing for a long time. We had the funnier Nightmare on Elm Street movies --movies I also don't like. But those movies were well grounded in the horror genre. They had funny parts because expectations for entertainment were aiming for the widest audiences. But they were still fundamentally horror movies. True horror-comedy --at least in the contemporary setting --with Shaun of the Dead. Listen, I'm going to make a lot of comparisons with Shaun of the Dead and Jordan Peele's Get Out. I just want to give you the heads up so you can beat me to the punch. Shaun of the Dead was an objectively great movie filled with nuance and love. It balanced both genres really well and redefined both genres. It was something amazing. But the lesson that a lot of people and studios took was that zombie-comedies were great. We got a glut of really forgettable zombie comedies. Some of them were better than others, but the only really memorable zombie comedy was Shaun of the Dead. (Some of you are peeping in with Warm Bodies. That's an odd flex. It could be good, but it isn't Shaun of the Dead.)
The Blackening is the natural byproduct of Get Out being an amazing movie. A social conscious Black horror movie absolutely destroyed and here's the first attempt to copy that. But Tim Story kind of reads like all those zombie comedies we got post-Shaun. Every joke is honest-to-goodness low-hanging fruit. God, there wasn't a nuanced moment anywhere in this movie. Now, given what I just said about copycats from their inspirations, I don't think that I ever expected The Blackening to ever get as good as a Jordan Peele film. The trailer alone gave me hints that this wasn't going to be as subtle or smart as any one of the Jordan Peele horror trilogy. But to quote Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion, "No! It's just dumb!"
Part of that comes from the fact that the movie doesn't know what it wants to be. Structurally, this seems like it is meant to be satire. I mean, you have Peele's template, so mind as well continue a well-established tradition. And there are a ton of movie where it almost works as a satire. If I could cut this into a fifteen minute short (with some stuff refilmed so it would make sense), this actually might work as a short satire. But there isn't a ton of content that Story wants to talk about with a sense of nuance. Instead, he then pads this satire with parody. There is so much of this movie that feels more like Scary Movie than Get Out and that's almost a crime. I'm always in that camp that all art should be political, including parody. But Story is afraid to dive into one tone or another. It's way too silly to be a proper satire of Black pop culture, but it's also not silly enough to be a proper parody of the same thing either.
The movie wants us to lie to ourselves and tell ourselves that "yeah, I guess that might happen." That's a weird place for an audience to be in the entire time. Mel Brooks was the king of the parody. The fact that he has parodies that loved and respected in film history is a triumph. The way that Brooks does that is that he lets you know that there is no limit to where things can go. Think about the end of Blazing Saddles. That degree of fourth wall destruction gives us a sense that we're all here for the laughs. When we learn something about film and culture while that silliness is going on, that's a win. Paul Verhoven's Robocop is also an example of satire that goes big, but sticks within rules to let the narrative continue being a narrative. But The Blackening has characters acting all sorts of ways for the joke.
I wondered why Clifton bothered me so much in this movie. I mean, it's a specific thing that Story is commenting on. (I have so many thoughts about Clifton as avatar, but I'd have to do some research before I could say anything confident with that.) The Clifton character isn't the problem in himself. This specific character has been littered throughout parody films for ages. I mean, Blankman is just Clifton. But again, Blankman is a parody. When Clifton is a character in a movie full of semi-realistic characters, he just stands out like a sore thumb. We're supposed to comment on Clifton's weird behaviors, but the other characters also think that Clifton is a weird dude. He doesn't exist in the real world for them and that's unsettling. He's breaking the rules of the movie. Also, his weird behavior is the product of writing and directing. I know that Dan Harmon comments on a specific joke that he doesn't care for. When a character is given a specific look that the rest of the characters tease, it's not really a joke because it's not like we're picking on something real. We're calling out how silly we're being. I hate to say it, but that's Clifton. He's so many hats on so many hats.
I'm a broken record, but this is a movie that needs a heavy dose of vulnerability. There's nothing real about this movie. The movie will often tell us that things are vulnerable and that we should care about the events, but everything is treated with the lowest stakes ever. Structurally, we should be horrified by things happening. Again, I'm going to back to Shaun of the Dead. (I would use Get Out, but the body count in that is low and it is a fairly intimate film compared to the large cast of The Blackening.) Shaun and his cohorts are a little silly, but they also have their own sets of rules. Ed is the outlandish one, but Ed's behavior has real world consequences. People genuinely get mad at Ed's antics, all of which seem like a character that would exist in Shaun of the Dead. So as silly as things get (the moment that most pushes it might be when the gang run into their dopplegangers for a quick joke), when characters die, there's emotional investment. Heck, even the character we don't like, Sean's stepdad, is quite the emotional moment when he eventually turns. That doesn't really exist in The Blackening. I'm glad that not a lot of characters died because I don't think that there would have been many characters that I would have lamented.
But we're never given these vulnerable moments with these characters. The reason why I give the characterization of King a few props is that he gets honest with Nnamdi. He calls Nnamdi on his crap while admitting that he's earnestly happy with his wife. Sure, he backpedals a bit. He does have a gun, despite claiming that he left that life behind. There's moments where he beats the crap out of the killer, which is lightly satisfying. But the rest of the characters, even the ones that are treated with a modicum of nuance, like Allison and Lisa, are given weird character traits to make them utter goofballs. Allison, for no reason, is given Adderol. I don't know why Shanika has them if she doesn't know that they're not painkillers. But, again, hat-on-a-hat. Allison doesn't need bits. Her character background is far more engaging than the Adderol bit. Same thing is true about Lisa. Lisa probably has her head on straight for a lot of this movie. If this was a standard horror movie, my bets would be either on Lisa or Allison. Heck, I would straight up root for a Lisa led slasher film. But then there are these moments that are done for humor that completely remind me that I'm not supposed to care about these characters. Yelling at Nnamdi in the vents while trying to stay silent for a killer looking for them takes me out of the movie so hard.
Maybe if the jokes were funny and original, I would also jump on board. There were a few chuckles, to be sure. I am sounding super-bitter right now, so I want to give credit where it is due. I honestly don't remember which jokes got me. But honestly, an AI could have written most of the jokes. They're bits that we heard a million times before. The comedy doesn't match the horror. "It's just dumb."
I'm so disappointed. My expectations were mild. I expected a fun horror movie that I might forget about. But even in the Tim Story canon, this is low. The funny thing is that he's talking about all of the things that should be talked about in a Black genre film, but he's doing so with the subtlety and grace of a sledgehammer. Nothing is discussed. It's almost like he's reading a greatest hits list. The words don't match the content and that makes it forgettable. There's almost a responsibility when a movie has so much to say to mirror it with quality. As awful as it is, people's politics are swayed by quality. If I quoted a line from The Blackening that was socially important, people would dismiss it, "You mean from that bad movie?" I know, there should be no correlation between quality of a film and political ideals. But the inverse is true. There's all kinds of conservative crap out there that I dismiss because most of those movies are terrible. The Blackening needs to learn from the mistakes of the people on the other side of the aisle.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.