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‘The Blackening’ finds the life in its ‘We can’t all die first’ concept

<i>Glen Wilson/Lionsgate</i><br/>Melvin Gregg
Glen Wilson/Lionsgate
Melvin Gregg

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — The promotional line for “The Blackening” is so good – “We can’t all die first” – there was reason to fear the movie couldn’t live up to it. Yet like other self-referential horror/comedies (the “Scream” franchise come to mind), the film ably delivers on its premise, mining enough life from its satirical concept to deliver plenty of crowd-pleasing moments.

If the idea sounds like a comedy sketch, that’s exactly how it began, the creation of comedian Dewayne Perkins, who blew that up into a feature script with Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip”) handed over to director Tim Story (“Barbershop”).

The small scale – with practically all the action taking place in a remote cabin in the woods – actually works to the movie’s advantage. That tight focus allows the story to consciously flesh out characters usually given short shrift in traditional horror fare, where, yes, people of color are often early casualties, with a mortality rate that probably ranks right behind teenagers who have sex.

The simple set-up doesn’t waste much time, with a group of former college friends getting together for a 10-year reunion that doubles as a Juneteenth celebration. They’re toting with them a fair amount of baggage, including past relationships and strained friendships, all of which will be put to the test by having a faceless maniac trying to kill them.

Faster than you can say “Jumanji,” they stumble upon a game, which the unseen attacker forces them to play. Beyond creating a sense of jeopardy, the questions evoke opportunities to riff on all sorts of minutia, from “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” trivia to whether anybody will admit to having watched “Friends.” They also drop plenty of wry horror references, whether that’s “Get Out” or “The People Under the Stairs.”

The cast includes Grace Byers (“Empire”), Jermaine Fowler, Melvin Gregg, X Mayo, Dewayne Perkins, Antoinette Robertson, and Sinqua Walls (recently seen in Hulu’s “White Men Can’t Jump” remake), and they generally appear to be having a ball playing off each other.

Yet there’s also something pointed in the underlying notion that an all-Black core group highlights how race has played a subtle and not-so-subtle role in movie conventions across the decades. As Perkins told the New York Times, the broader issue here involves feelings of being marginalized, with horror serving as a proxy for other institutions.

While not overdoing the gore, Story wisely includes enough horror elements to conjure tension amid the laughs, recognizing that horror, more than comedy, has been one of the most durable genres at the box office since the pandemic began.

Throw in the movie’s modest budget, and it’s not hard to envision “The Blackening” emerging as a sleeper success among the tall trees of summer blockbusters – potentially not just surviving but thriving, which, given the movie’s central conceit, would surely be the sweetest revenge of all.

“The Blackening” premieres June 16 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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