The best vampire stories are about far more than vampires. Obviously.
From Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel to 1972’s ground-breaking Blacula to 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, pop culture’s best takes on immortals who dine on human blood are laden with feeding frenzies that are both bloody entertaining monster stories and critiques of the world around them. Stoker was obsessed with the corruption of proper English virgins. Blacula fought back against bad cops (when he wasn’t seducing women). The mysterious woman in a chador of A Girl Walks Home uses her powers to take out bad guys.
The ubiquity of vampires has made them much tougher to do effectively: Stoker had novelty on his side when he mined myth and the co-opted lore of Wallachia’s accurately and notoriously named Vlad the Impaler. Today, the genre is mined for satire rather than scares (see FX’s What We Do in the Shadows). Wrestling a contemporary, frightening socially relevant story from a genre that’s been around for 120ish years is a tough gig, but Black as Night has found a way.
The Amazon Studios/Blumhouse release is both a great story about vampires of the traditional immortal sort and of the mortal sort. The former is all fangs and glowing eyes and spectacular implosions under direct sunlight. The latter is another kind of bloodsucker: Humans who systematically prey on the down-and-out and marginalized, empowered by the kind of evil that needs no supernatural gloss to sow destruction and chaos.
Black as Night is deeply specific to post-Katrina New Orleans, its decay and splendor shot in sumptuous detail. But director Maritte Lee Go and screenwriter Sherman Payne have a wider lens as well, and while the movie is richly of a time and place it’s also a story that could apply to anywhere that power resides (or has resided), by design, with the wealthy white few.
It’s groundbreaking from the jump. As Shawna, a New Orleans teen born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Asjha Cooper is the first Black teenage girl vampire slayer in the history of movies.
Cooper, who is also a recurring character on Chicago Med, gives the initially insecure Shawna a coming-of-age story that tackles everything from supernatural monsters to FEMA’s monstrous failure to help those who suffered most when Katrina hit. Her performance is at once intensely relatable to anyone who was ever awkward as a teen (so, everybody) and completely believable as an ass-kicking, vampire/patriarchy-slaying warrior coming into her own power.
Black as Night ★★★1/2
Dir. Maritte Lee Go, 87 min. Prime Video
But the first thing we see Shawna concerned with isn’t monsters or even the fallout from Katrina, which took both her family’s house and broke apart her family. Sunning herself with her sassy gay best friend (Fabrizio Guido, deftly defying the tired sassy gay best friend trope that the script relies on) on the rooftop of a fancy hotel they’ve infiltrated, Shawna’s concerned with her skin tone. It’s already dark, she snaps when he asks why she’s covered up. She’s not trying to get any darker.
The issue rears up again when Shawna tries to catch the eye of hunky next-door neighbor Chris (Mason Beauchamp, believably evolving from surly brosef to vampire slayer to sensitive soul with his own secret source of angst). Her brother laughs at her: Everyone knows Chris only goes with light-skinned Creole girls. It’s more than a little heartbreaking.
As their father ladles out goopy-looking casseroles, the family’s backstory gradually emerges. Katrina left their home a weedy vacant lot, a loss that pushed their mother into addiction. In one haunting scene, Shawna and her father sit on all that remains of their former home: crumbling cement blocks, the ruins of the drowned foundation.
Shawna has no memory of her mother (Kenneisha Thompson in a harrowing, heartbreaking turn) pre-Katrina, but she’s devoted to helping her heal. Alas, a nest of vampires living in the shadows of New Orleans have their own plans for the city’s addicts and homeless, and anyone else who has been failed by the institutions ostensibly put in place to help them.
Saying much more about the plot would only result in spoilers, so know this: The biggest, baddest vampire in Black as Night isn’t exactly who you think he is. And while the vampires are plenty scary in Black as Night, the status quo that’s prompted their plans of human domination is scarier. Not even Keith David’s NOLA immortal (the less said about this character the better, save for David embodies a soul on an uncompromising quest for righteous justice) is immune from the impact of systemic racism.
Payne’s screenplay is leavened with humor and Go has the cast making the absolute most of it. Watch for the scene where Shawna infiltrates a vampire-obsessed group of white girls whose gatherings are part sorority, part book club, and part coven.
Go relies on plenty of horror movie go-tos, and it works. Jump scares abound, yet they’re effective every time. Gore grows exponentially more copious and creatively deployed as the story continues. And it shamelessly sets itself up for a sequel. That’s good news for everybody. Happy early Halloween.