Synopsis – In a small town in Massachusetts, a group of friends, fascinated by the internet lore of the Slender Man, attempt to prove that he doesn’t actually exist – until one of them mysteriously goes missing.
My Take – While Syfy has successfully managed to translate stories from the Creepypasta forum to the screen in the form of the excellent horror anthology television series, Channel Zero, it’s seemed like it was finally time for their most popular character, Slenderman, to get its very own big screen treatment. Originally created by Victor Surge, the internet phenomenon majorly found worldwide coverage due to a 2014 incident when two 12-year-old girls stabbed a friend 19 times and left her for dead in Waukesha, Wisconsin, professing that the Slenderman told them to do so. While the true crime story was covered in the excellent HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman, this horror adaption from director Sylvain White and screenwriter David Birke uses a more traditional approach by summoning the malevolent force via a ritual.
However, while the urban legend managed to sends shivers down the spines of its fans, this profoundly bad horror film completely missed the mark about what made its subject matter interesting in the first place. The interesting fact here is that due to initial negative reception regarding the production being too insensitive to the stabbings, Sony and Screen Gems got cold feet in regards to any actual violence in the film, and tried to sell it to Netflix, but since they didn’t find any takers, they just removed those scenes (seen in the first trailer) entirely without editing the remaining film to be coherent, a result of which some characters just end up no longer existing without any explanation. In a year where we have seen impressive genre efforts in the form of Hereditary and A Quite Place, this film is simply uneventful, but more importantly, it isn’t particularly scary.
The story follows Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles), a high school student in Massachusetts, who along with her three best friends Wren (Joey King), Chloe (Jaz Sinclair), and Katie (Annalise Basso) spend her days talking about teenage girls stuff and harassing boys. Upon learning that the school boys are gathering one night to summon Slender Man (Javier Botet), the longtime Internet legend about a thin, faceless figure that exists in the woods and abducts or brainwashes innocent children.
Fascinated by the idea, the girls while getting drunk in Katie’s basement, decide to investigate the urban legend and stumble about a weird internet video which will help them summon the monster, and watch it. While they are all unsettled in their own way, things take a turn, when Katie mysteriously vanishes without a trace during a field trip. And in the process of trying to re-summon the creature to get Katie back, Chloe sees his face, which drives her mad. Soon, the remaining two are beset with heinous visions of him, but what does he want? Them. What’s he going to do once he gets them? We are never exactly sure.
That’s the problem with this film, there are no rules because there is no mythology. While crowdsourced stories and viral videos hunting for the character have made up the lore. Here, we don’t know anything about him, or what to fear, and the film doesn’t fill that in. I won’t pretend like I could have written or made a better film, but the fact remains that this one is not good. The film just sort of lumbers along from one tedious, uninspired scene to the next reminding us of all the stronger horror films that clearly inspired it. It wants us to fear that urban legend we stumble across while surfing the web, but it never really gives us a reason to truly be scared. You can guess the scares before they happen. There was a chance here to make a truly frightening film about a popular urban legend, but it comes too late and marked by too much tragedy for it to work.
The saddest part is is that it could have been a fantastically creepy look at the urban legend and the way the internet has the power to create and destroy. But writer Birke’s script is plainly straightforward, a simple supernatural chase story. It doesn’t plumb the depths of what might make the legend scary, so the film isn’t scary at all. What’s truly terrifying is the vulnerability of young susceptible minds exposed to all manner of folklore and fake news online, how suggestion can inspire outlandish fantasies and even violent action. A theme the film just brushes by with increasingly hysterical Wren, but then falls back repeatedly on the ghost story, staying firmly in the realm of paranormal horror, where the scares are increasingly stale. The horror of the character has always been more of a Lovecraftian phenomenon, the terror of a viral being infecting the mind to the point where it’s no longer capable of perceiving the evil that’s overtaken it.
But director Sylvain White brings nothing particularly new to the table. Instead, the audience is presented what is largely a pastiche of tired horror trends, stiched together into a feature film, where the atmosphere is pretty much limited to dark and foggy forests, dark and foggy rooms, and dark and foggy cinematography. The context and background of the legend makes the character ripe for commentary, be it mental illness, teenage angst, fixations, or obsession with social media, but the film explores none of these. There are hints at how exposure to he slowly drives those who summon him insane, but the script is uninterested in the urban lore of the monster and instead just goes after a generic PG-13 teen horror film.
But when there aren’t any rules for what you’re supposed to be afraid of, there is almost literally nothing scary or tense that happens. Every attempt at tension seems to be derived from a video call coming from an unknown number. Seriously, who the hell answers a phone call anymore, let alone a video call from an unknown number? The film is overloaded with clichés, jump scares complete with loud-to-silent music drop-offs, and mounds of expository information delivered through the faithful horror-film-trope of scary-web-searching-followed-by-frantic-link-clicking. Sure, the “did you see that” hidden fright is part of his meme appeal, but director Sylvain White never gets the right handle on how to mine that for horror shocks.
What made Beware the Slenderman so horrifying is that it could have happened anywhere, to anyone, if their child was able to access the corners of the internet where the legend lurks. It tackled the power of belief, asked the question of whether the internet is dangerous, and inspired true terror through the real-life tragedy that occurred. It was painful without being exploitative. Nearly all of the best realizations that the characters come to about the mysterious figure stalking them in Sony’s film are already explored in the documentary; most of the beats, such as comparing the character to a virus or to the Pied Piper, were all points that were made in the documentary. The only twist is the fact that he is very much a real figure in this fictional world, and honestly, that only makes it less scary.
Even worse is our main protagonist, Hallie, who looks bored for the first half of the film, but suddenly becomes very unlikable in the second half. For example, as soon as things get difficult she straight up abandons the rest of her friends. Why is she our protagonist? Wren should have been the main character. At least she was interesting to watch, while Hallie was just awful. There are also some subplots which never get resolved and seem straight up abandoned. For whatever reason, they were cut out and the stories involving Chloe and Tom (Alex Fitzalan) are just dropped from the narrative without any real explanation.
The only compliment I have for the film is there are exactly three mildly creepy sequences. One includes the scene where they are watching the videos about the character, which I’ve seen myself and have always found mildly creepy, one brief vision with some decent imagery, and the third act has one creepy visual that actually works. But that is all I’ve got in the positive section. For a film like this you only feel bad for its protagonists, as young actresses Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, and Annalise Basso, clearly deserved better, here they just ham all over the film. On the whole, ‘Slender Man’ is a colossal failure as a horror film, which despite attempts to create a new horror icon ends up just riddling itself in clichés and little resolution.
Directed – Sylvain White
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 93 minutes