“Welcome to the Blumhouse,” the Blumhouse/Amazon Prime horror initiative, returns this week with Black as Night, a teen vampire romp set right in the middle of the socioeconomic divide of New Orleans. While the film has little new to say about bloodsuckers, it is nonetheless a welcome opener to our spookiest month of the year.
Black as Night Provides a Quick Tour of Vampire Clichés and a Side of New Orleans Rarely Glimpsed
Shawna (Asjha Cooper) has grown up amidst the literal and figurative debris of Hurricane Katrina. Like New Orleans itself, her family survived the experience, but the scars set in deep. For instance, Shawna’s mom (Kenneisha Thompson) lost herself to drug use after the devastation. Now Shawna, her older brother, and her dad live in a middle-class neighborhood. Only a few miles away shakily stands the projects and abandoned spaces where her mom now shelters.
With Cooper’s wise for a teen narration—a tool I wish the film made more use of—setting the stage, we quickly realize the terrain. Yes, this is a vampire movie on the surface, but it is far more interested in Shawna’s life and the class divide that’s creating a gulf under her very feet.
Black as Night brings in Granya (Abbie Gayle), an undead curious teen, to explain the ins and outs of vampire-fighting, but it’s hardly necessary. Anyone with even a whiff of familiarity with vampires will recognize that writer Sherman Payne has stocked the film with every possible cliché. There’s a strange sectarian conflict addition the movie makes on the back half, but it doesn’t go anywhere and honestly only serves to undermine Shawna’s ingenuity. The only possible reason I can think of to add the element is that the filmmakers have an eye towards making several flicks in this setting or with this mythology.
That said, the movie takes such a breezy approach to the clichés that being bothered is difficult. It plausibly makes garlic a torture device in one moment, only to blow it up into a bit of silliness involving garlic powder shakers in the next. Black as Night’s willingness to be playful with the tropes ensures the movie never feels stodgy despite playing from a dusty playbook.
Its interrogation of social issues proves smarter and dicier. Payne’s decision to make a former slave turned vampire (Keith David) who then used his horrible gift to lead a slave rebellion the film’s villain puts Black as Night on some difficult ground to start. Payne more or less walks the high wire, though. His script, aided by Maritte Lee Go’s non-sensationalistic but unblinking direction, shows the degradation of the majority-minority housing of New Orleans and the need for change. However, it also doesn’t excuse how David stoking unhappiness and building his army is born less of a desire to make things right and more of one to gain further power for himself.
As the movie loses itself in melee the final third, everyone seems to lose their grip on the stick. Fabrizio Guido as Shawna’s gay friend Pedro is probably the film’s best weapon, but making him repeatedly vacillate between being fully on-board and being the possible voice of reason robs the proceedings of momentum. Plus, it makes him a bit of a drip when things need an injection of his energy. Making him the lone holdout until he gives in for friendship at the last moment would work. Instead, the endless back and forth dulls the story’s fun.
The final fates of the characters are also frustratingly anticlimactic. One character decides they aren’t cut out for vampire-fighting after all, which is an interesting touch. However, it’s so abrupt. Add to that Shawna’s narration saying how important this character remains while never showing us again feels like they thought they had the actor for seven days, and when it turned out it was actually six shooting days, they had to scramble.
One of the most prominent victims also gives a bit of pause. Somehow, in a movie that elevates actors of color above the cliché of first dead, they still managed to fall into a relatively easy to dodge negative trope. Given when it happens and how little it seems to affect the plot, it feels like an unforced error.
Still, Black as Night exists as the kind of breezy horror movie that would run on cable in the middle of a rainy day in the ‘90s. Totally watchable with easy-to-like characters, the mildest of scares, and a bit of message tucked into the fun. It seems like the sort of flick “Welcome to the Blumhouse” should deliver every time.