Review: Teen Vampire Thriller Black As Night Is As Serious About Scares As It Is Political Commentary
Marking the return of the Welcome to the Blumhouse series of horrors films on Amazon Prime Video this week are two new films (with two more to follow next week), Bingo Hell (which I was not able to screen in time for review) and Black As Night from writer Sherman Payne and director Maritte Lee Go, making her feature debut. Centering on fiercely independent 15-year-old Shawna (Asjha Cooper), the film is set in New Orleans, now 15 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but in some ways still suffering the aftermath. When her drug-addicted mother becomes a victim of a vampire attack and dies a fiery death after being exposed to sunlight, Shawna swears to track town the vampire horde that is responsible and get revenge.[caption id="attachment_98534" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video[/caption]
She recruits her best friend (Fabrizio Guido) and a few others who believe her vampire story to go on the hunt, but they uncover an underground society of vampires (led by Keith David) that has used every injustice done upon non-white members of the community as a chance to grow in numbers and eventually take over the city and beyond. With more of a social relevancy than even the recent Candyman (which is not to say Go’s film is better made), Black As Night isn’t just commentary on Black life in America; it’s also an adventurous, ragged-around-the-edges, fully energized, bloody vampire flick that relishes in the gore and New Orleans-style production design in equal measure.
The filmmakers also add a couple of new wrinkles to vampire lore, including the brilliant idea that the more melanin a vampire has in its skin, the easier it is to walk around during daylight hours. Shawna has often been picked on for being dark-skinned, but the vampires who threaten to turn her make her feel like a gifted queen who would easily become a day-walker, a position of honor in their community. The story also implies that if the vampire that transforms you is killed, you revert to human form (not a new concept but not one frequently used in vampire storytelling either). The teenage heroes infiltrate the vampire headquarters in the French Quarter and find themselves caught between two warring factions of vampire who have been fighting for centuries.
Thankfully, Black As Night doesn’t resort to having its heroes deliver an endless parade of lame vampire jokes. These kids are scared but brave, clueless about fighting vampires but quick to learn what works and what doesn’t. And director Go isn’t screwing around as far as the action goes. The film also doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its criticism of society and America’s treatment of people of color throughout the centuries. The movie looks at those who are vulnerable and sees them as the next in line to take over the power structure (“The meek shall inherit the earth”), and it takes its politics as seriously as it takes its action and horror elements. The budget was clearly microscopic (as most Blumhouse films are), but the filmmakers manage to pull something together that looks solid, features worthy acting, and doesn’t forget to be fun and scary at the same time.
The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Videohttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuXnGbxTxDE
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.