“The summer I got breasts is also the summer I fought vampires.” That’s how Black as Night, one of four films in this year’s Welcome to the Blumhouse quartet on Amazon Prime Video, begins. With an impressive slate of diverse actors and casts, this Halloween set promises refreshing storytelling and scare tactics, but Black as Night is a step down from the previous entry Bingo Hell.
Asjha Cooper stars as Shawna, a teenager in the throes of puberty saddled with fighting off a coven of sinister vampires when they start preying on the disenfranchised of New Orleans. The film opens with a homeless man getting attacked by a trio of undead blood drinkers and then changes course to introduce us to the main characters, Shawna and her best friend Pedro (Fabrizio Guido).
There is no universe where the 28-year-old Cooper is believable as a 16-year-old. That is not a discredit to Cooper, who delivers a strong leading performance here deeply rooted in bravery and compassion. She is one of the film’s highlights, and I hope she breaks out soon along with the release of her other horror film, There’s Someone Inside Your House, where she plays an entirely different and more comedic role.
I don’t know why the writers didn’t just set Shawna and her friends in college, especially because high school is not essential to this story. There is a “coming of age” element, but it’s nothing that a girl in her early 20s could not have addressed. They might have had to cut the boob jokes but, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Shawna plans on having a normal summer hanging out with Pedro and maybe talking to her crush, the ladies man Chris (Mason Beauchamp). Her ideal vacation is interrupted when she gets attacked while walking home from a party and discovers the existence of “homeless vampires.” The story kicks off from there. Shawna and Pedro connect with the local head of a young woman’s vampire fiction club Granya (Abbie Gayle), who helps them understand the rules of vampire lore.
Black as Night keeps it pretty traditional here, with rules regarding sunlight, garlic, wooden stakes, and silver. The garlic, in particular, is a significant part of the lore, and I actually loved the way it became such a threat in this movie to the point characters armed themselves with garlic powder shakers!
Black as Night’s biggest weakness is the script, specifically the dialogue
This film doesn’t work as well as you want it to because of the script. The dialogue is flat-out bad, and the voiceover narration does not work at all. Cooper’s voice chimes in at the most random times throughout the movie to tell the audience something obvious. Every time she touches a vampire, we hear her internal monologue: “cool leather,” as if it hasn’t already been established vampires are cool to the touch. They’re immediately recognizable, too, thanks to savvy practical effects and makeup.
Apart from the voiceover, the script is layered with outdated and unfunny jokes, like this exchange: “Doesn’t that explain why the ladies of the night—” “Ladies of the night?” “The prostitutes,” “Oh, the hos, right.” At one point, Shawna also condemns Pedro for “acting like a girl.”
And speaking of Pedro, it’s unfortunate that he becomes such a cliché and frustrating character. His first scene establishes he’s gay with a joke about him not liking boobs.
Black as Night does its best to address many important topics, like Hurricane Katrina’s path of destruction and the following displacement of thousands of Black Americans, the impact still being felt more than a decade later. Shawna’s mother, Denise, was pregnant with her when the storm hit and considered her daughter to be a “miracle baby.”
Other themes prevalent in the film include substance abuse, racism, gentrification and colorism. Shawna feels insecure about her dark skin, and it’s brought up multiple times throughout the film, sometimes in poor taste. But by juggling so many different and equally weighty topics, Black as Night only manages shallow exploration of each.
Regarding colorism, there are unfortunate implications that Shawna’s acceptance of her skin hinges on male approval as only male characters talk to her about it and tell her how to feel. Despite addressing many of these issues, it never feels like the script takes them anywhere meaningful.
But perhaps the strangest choice made is in the lack of Keith David. A charismatic and well-known horror actor, David stands out in any film, whether it’s good or bad. He’s an obvious draw. In Black as Night, we don’t see his entire face on-screen until well over the halfway mark. I assume part of that is because the plot attempts to misdirect the audience regarding the main antagonist, but we already know David is there because we hear him and see him (from behind) trying to save the Ombreaux. It’s obvious he will have a more significant role to play before the end of the movie. I mean, it’s Keith David!
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the final third of the film, when David’s character Babineaux finally becomes a core component, is easily the best and most fun to watch. In the final third, I saw the movie I wish Black as Night would have become much earlier.
The stunning animated sequence depicting Babineaux’s backstory is a particular high point, as is the inclusion of distinctive vampire lore and history that I wish had time to be expanded upon. It’s always great to have a female director behind the lens of a horror film, but Maritte Lee Go doesn’t do much to set Black as Night apart from other genre fare.
Overall, Black as Night takes an intriguing approach to the vampire genre that combines traditional elements with a unique twist that works well within its New Orleans setting. Once you get past the first two-thirds of the film, the third act finally lets David play and becomes something worthwhile, if only it didn’t take so long to get there.
Black as Night is part of Amazon Prime Video’s Welcome to the Blumhouse quartet and is now streaming on the service.