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Movie review: Clever 'The Blackening' equally hilarious, horrifying

Antoinette Robertson tries to survive "The Blackening." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
1 of 5 | Antoinette Robertson tries to survive "The Blackening." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

LOS ANGELES, June 14 (UPI) -- The Blackening is the Scream for the post-Get Out horror movement. The horror-comedy, in theaters Friday, is smarter, funnier and scarier than the last two Scream sequels.

A group of friends meet at a cabin for Juneteenth weekend. In the owners' game room is a board game called The Blackening.

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The Blackening game blends the premises of both Saw and Scream movies, forcing the friends to play games that address pop culture for their lives.

But, before the game begins, the script by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins introduces the individual players. This introduction does a good job establishing the group dynamics and beefs that exist before the horror begins.

Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) didn't tell Dewayne (Perkins) she invited her ex, Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls). King (Melvin Gregg) calls out Nnamdi's womanizing ways.

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These friends make clever observations about cultural stereotypes, too. Allison (Grace Byers) says she remains afraid of her White father, because even being his daughter doesn't make her immune to worrisome White stereotypes.

Shanika (X Mayo) is the loud and brash party animal who brings molly for the group.

When six of the friends represent such realistic archetypes, it is an odd choice to make Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) a total caricature. It undercuts his scenes to give him a fake, nerdy voice and a lip twitch when the writing was clear enough about who Clifton is.

When they first encounter The Blackening, the friends assume the friends they are meeting, Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and Shawn (Jay Pharoah) set it up as a gag. The Blackening quickly reveals itself to be serious and forces them to play to save Morgan and Shawn.

Whoever is controlling the game also locks them in the game room, so they would have to play to escape, anyway.

The game asks questions about pop culture from a Black perspective. These are not limited to horror movies, but include famous observations about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends.

Not only do the questions get tougher, but a killer in a blackface mask stalks the group with a crossbow, too. The house is impenetrable, and even if they could leave, their tires have been deflated, so they are stuck.

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With such a distinct group of characters established, The Blackening can comment on horror movies even when the board game does not. The Blackening has its own riff on the "look behind you" trope that goes a step beyond Scream's observation of that phrase.

The script is packed with rapid-fire cultural observations. Without overtly invoking George Floyd and police protests, The Blackening reflects characters who have lived through the most recent social movements.

Director Tim Story makes sure to keep the panicked conversations flowing, and credit also goes to the cast for delivering the lines and any they may have improvised themselves. Oliver's script also is careful not to bring up any subjects that could be too real to joke about.

One character references the sunken place in casual conversation. That makes sense because the sunken place would be a common reference point for friends who have all seen Get Out.

Horror has evolved so many levels that Scream 2 is now a reference in a horror-comedy. A player references Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps in Scream 2, but does not appear to be aware of Pinkett Smith's horror credentials from Demon Knight.

There are visual homages to Paranormal Activity, and a classic Ouija board is the subject of one joke, too.

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The Blackening is packed with clever touches within intense scenes. In a shootout, the film's action comments on the sideways gun trope from Black crime movies without any character saying a word.

Physical comedy becomes violent and bloody when weapons are involved. This, too, harkens back to the way Bruce Campbell took comical beatings in the Evil Dead movies.

The Blackening is a satire, but the danger is real. The audience can root for the characters, but remains in suspense because none fits typical genre rules for who is safe.

When characters do gain the upper hand, it is satisfying. As funny as it has been, they have been through an ordeal and deserve the triumph.

Horror as a genre has lent itself to self-reflection ever since the Abbott and Costello Meet... Universal Monster movies. Scream was the right meta commentary on the slasher generation.

In the decades since Scream, horror and society have gone through several additional evolutions. The Blackening is a cathartic convergence of entertainment and social commentary.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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