Written by: David Birke (screenplay), Victor Surge (character)
Directed by: Sylvain White
Starring: Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, and Jaz Sinclair
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“He gets in your head like a virus..."
Slender Man feels like a latecomer in more ways than one: not only is it inspired by a nearly-decade old creepypasta post (we’re living in strange times indeed when this is an actual sentence that makes sense), but it also takes its cue from last decade’s rash of PG-13, teen-oriented ghost movies looking to cash in on The Ring. Releasing this now is certainly a choice, and that isn’t even taking into consideration how this mythos inspired an actual, high-profile stabbing that was chronicled in Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary Beware the Slenderman. That’s a lot of unexpected baggage saddled to this mostly harmless, largely forgettable throwback to an era I didn’t much care for the first time, mostly because I wasn’t the target audience then, much less now, when I might as well be reenacting Steve Buschemi’s “hello fellow kids” routine every time I walk into the theater for one of these things.
Anyway, you know the story for this one already: a group of bored high school girls decides that their middle-class existence isn’t cool enough, prompting some of them to hit a goth phase, which mostly entails them making edgy comments about not having a soul and wanting to see kittens explode. One night, they catch wind that a group of boys are gathering to summon the Slender Man, a supposedly mythical entity that abducts children; not to be outdone, the girls seek out a website for instructions on how to conjure up the spirit themselves. Despite being greeted with ominous warnings and unsettling images, they forge ahead with the ritual that involves watching a video, leading you to believe that these girls never saw The Ring. They laugh it all off and go about their business until one of the girls disappears on a field trip the next day, which sets off a panic among the group: what if Slender Man is real after all? And if he is, can he be appeased enough to return their friend?
I can’t say it’s the most riveting set of questions, especially since it’s obvious that, yes, Slender Man has been summoned, as he sets himself to tormenting the remaining girls with the usual assortment of mind tricks and shadow play. Also, I don’t know about you, but malevolent entities usually aren’t the type to be appeased by anything other than claiming your very soul. Of course, you can’t tell these kids that, so they trawl through weird backchannels of the web and (gasp!) hit up library archives in order to reckon with what they’ve done, oblivious that they’re completely, utterly screwed. Considering they’re all largely interchangeable and boast personality traits like “runs track” and “hates preppy dweebs,” it’s hard to muster up much concern on their behalf. In fact, the only feeling of dread inspired by Slender Man was the growing fear that perhaps the Screen Gems logo at the beginning opened a vortex back to 2005 because I could have sworn that I’d seen this a dozen times by now. There’s even a random shot of a girl with long, wet, black hair thrown in seemingly out of obligation.
Of course, repetition is no reason to completely dismiss something outright (why, yes, I’m currently enthused for the eleventh Halloween movie later this year), and, to its credit, Slender Man has some nice pieces in place. Lucca Del Puppo’s appropriately bleak photography is soaked in shadows and fog, creating a nicely dreary, menacing atmosphere for what is essentially a modern campfire tale of sorts. Even though the story takes place on the eve of summer for some reason, some autumnal flourishes make for a welcome bit of ambiance in a film whose aesthetics are charged with outrunning all the surrounding familiarity. The score—supplied by Ramin Djwadi and Brandon Campbell—is occasionally evocative as well, particularly when it introduces an otherworldly, warbling motif to accentuate the film’s few, fleetingly haunting moments.
It’s a shame they’re so fleeting because—as vaguely familiar as it is—the Slender Man lore is naturally intriguing. Despite our ability to trace this mythos back to its original source (right down to its individual creator, Victor Surge), there’s something elemental about the Slender Man that captures the primal shiver of an urban legend that stirs you to look over your shoulder, out into the darkness and wonder just what is out there? A natural boogeyman for the online age, his haunting takes on the tenor of a viral meme, spreading from one person to the next, scrambling their brains and upending their souls in the process: what was once confined to campfire tales passed around a tight circle of friends becomes a global phenomenon, with people across the world reporting similar riffs on an unsettling theme. Director Sylvian White grasps this appeal, at least, since Slender Man is at its best when it simply has its characters exploring this phenomenon by pulling up “actual” photos and footage of purported sightings. Maybe that doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s akin to going straight to the source: Slender Man is spooky precisely because he’s a lurking, almost ephemeral presence, and these shots exhibit the necessary restraint for capturing that momentary, subtle horror.
But you can’t make an entire movie like that, at least not one geared to the tween crowd (most of whom I imagine roll their eyes at the Slender Man stuff by now because he’s so last decade). As such, Slender Man unravels into a messy collage of cliché, swiping bits and pieces from better movies as it strings together a bunch of loud, obvious jolts on its way to completely undermining whatever tension, atmosphere, and intrigue it might have had. White leans too heavily on chintzy effects and overblown shots of the Slender Man to create the impression that something must be happening when, in fact, that’s sort of the problem: this is a movie that entrenches itself in an absorbing mythology, only to spin its wheels in a futile effort to do anything with it.
Sure, we get those obligatory subplots where the girls seek out explanations from former victims and vaguely occult books, yet they go absolutely nowhere: you’ll see the “twist” here telegraphed far before it ever arrives, mostly because you’ve seen it play out in previous, better movies. Unless you’re mostly new to this sort of thing—or somehow just missed out on the previous decade—Slender Man ultimately offers nothing but excessive noise and flat visuals and leaves its decent cast (these actresses at least have a ton of conviction) to flounder about in a frenzy of murkily shot forests and knockoff Ring/Grudge imagery. No genuine attempt is made at confronting or exploring the allure of an enduring boogeyman that actually drove girls to violence, as Slender Man doesn't even feign interest in its characters beyond their potential as victims.
Maybe it’s fair to say Slender Man simply belongs to the category of “Baby’s First Horror Movie,” a distinction I make not out of derision but out of an acknowledgment that every genre needs accessible gateways. We can’t all just dive right into the deep end of the genre, and Slender Man might strike the younger crowd a bit more differently, maybe going so far as to spark an interest in seeking out more horror. Far be it from me to presume what kids today enjoy (Slender Man actually posits that they sit around in basements and watch porn together), but I’d like to think this movie wasn’t produced completely in vain. If it actually were 2005, I’d probably be a lot more dismissive—if not downright snotty—towards Slender Man, maybe even regarding it as evidence that bland, harmless studio junk is diluting the horror pool.
Growing older will make you realize that’s silly (horror is nothing if not forever enduring) and that not everything is made for you: let the kids—or whoever else might enjoy it—have Slender Man. Even if this take is disappointing and squanders a lot of potential, a silver lining emerges when you realize there is a good version of this called Absentia.
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