Casey Tebo’s Black Friday smashes together two of this critic’s thematic loves — holiday horror and workplace horror. Specifically, Thanksgiving horror in the spirit of Christmas shopping crazes. You’d think America’s unhealthy obsession with consumerism and Black Friday sales would have translated into countless on-screen Best Buy massacres and nightmares by now. Still, there are few notable titles outside Michael Dougherty’s Krampus introduction (in essence) or Chopping Mall. A 1989 oddity called Elves starring an almost-slurring Dan Haggerty against Nazi incest creepoids? I digress. Tebo draws obvious comparisons from enraged department store crowds to mindless monsters charging towards customer service representatives, and there’s gory slaughter to behold — it’s just fun in the “modest, dumb” variety, which won’t appease all audiences.
It’s Thanksgiving night, and the employees of toy store “We Heart Toys” aren’t gobbling pumpkin pie with loved ones. Divorced father Ken (Devon Sawa), corporate-kissass manager Jonathan (Bruce Campbell), cashier Marnie (Ivana Baquero), and more are readying their storefront for another Black Friday onslaught. Although unethical working conditions and withheld bonuses are the least of their worries this year — an unidentified alien invasion-slash-contagion infects unruly shoppers. Ken leads an escape effort once everyone accepts doomsday implications, away from the glowing globular growth in Santa’s village that seems to be attracting creatures like a beacon. Hopefully they survive, and there’s a world left outside the walls of another soulless We Heart Toys franchise.
It all sounds great on paper. Devon Sawa, Bruce Campbell, and Michael Jai White in a goofball extraterrestrial horror comedy. Special effects headed by Robert Kurtzman. Black Friday boasts all the proper credentials and does its best within independent budgetary restrictions to deliver something ferocious within its moral corruption turned toxic earthly takeover. Sawa’s shouldering a lot of weight as a whisky drinker reconciling his deadbeat crisis, and Kurtzman does well to transform humans into lipless, fanged abominations in their meanest cosmic forms. We appreciate horror flicks with full-monster bodysuits and gross-out kills around these parts.
What’s less successful is Tebo’s presentation of Andy Greskoviak’s screenplay, which is surface value and illogically silly as a narrative.
Black Friday suffers from pacing issues that favor choppy momentum as well as non-existent character development. Jonathan’s wavering between a We Heart Toys shill and captain with a conscience is a glaring example of the stunted storytelling on display, as he bounces between attributes that never feel earned or adequately exposed. The antagonistic parasites are introduced like audiences are pushed into the deep end without warning, always trying to catch up with otherworldly abilities and total metamorphosis threats (beasties get scarier with time). That’s not to say any of it lacks “horrortainment,” more to convey the sloppiness outside of more than spilled guts. Don’t expect an incredibly thoughtful holiday horror satire that punishes our addiction to material things and the purgatorial imprisonment part-time work can become when management underappreciates and abuses.
Then again, you’re here for the feedings and practical effects. Kurtzman’s department executes more than a few stabs or slit throats. The unknown villains spit these webby, snow-white extensions from their mouths that pass the parasitic bug to new hosts, and it’s probably the least effective visual, but everything else looks impressively beastly. The top-to-bottom creatures look like something out of From Dusk Till Dawn, but with more hellspawn, impish attributes, and choice bodily mutilation that tears some graphic organ removal. Performers all react best to vicious acts of violence, mainly Sawa’s older slacker. Highlights include the pustulating, pinkish goo mass that keeps growing with every infected body it absorbs and whatever deaths we witness, and that’s when Black Friday shines: in its rougher designs, over-the-top nature, and ability to sidestep its sometimes one-note appeal.
There are parts of Black Friday that endure, like the banter between Sawa and Ivana Baquero or the minion monsters that flock towards We Heart Toys. There are parts of Black Friday that will frustrate, like the underuse of Michael Jai White as the resident warehouse badass or actors playing stereotypes they’ve escaped elsewhere. The dialogue is clunky, capitalist mindset lightly seared, and death at a cut-rate premium. Casey Tebo succeeds in crafting a schlocky midnighter set in the devastation of blue-collar workforces, even if it’s a halfway-there effort that’s better served by its methods of death than narrative accomplishments. Come for your company angst, stay for a few solid Jai White hero lines, and if you’re used to more unpolished horror fare, have a blast.