On the accessibility of monsters, keeping mysteries mysterious, and the timid half-measures of Slender Man
Slender Man Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: Sylvain White
Screenplay: David Birke, based on a character created by Victor Surge
Starring: Julia Goldani Telles, Joey King, Jaz Sinclair, Annalise Basso, Taylor Richardson, Alex Fitzalan, Kevin Chapman and Javier Botet
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 33 minutes / 2.35:1
August 10, 2018
(out of four)
We've all been taken in by an inexplicable image - the haunting shape in a fuzzy photograph, the impossible implication in a grainy video. But generally speaking, that's about as close as you're gonna want to get. At least if it's the mystery itself that you find so inviting. Get too close to that enigma and you're bound to be disappointed. That UFO you wanted to believe in turns out to be a smudge on the lens. The spectral figure you thought you spotted turns out to be an out-of-focus, unintended reflection of some random dude. And suddenly that spellbinding image is just a lousy photo.
You can extend this to people, too. If you're fascinated by that quiet, mysterious person in your building, never get to know him. You'll just find out, to your chagrin, that he's just as much of a dork as you are.
Slender Man is one such dork. He began his existence as an entry in a paranormal photo contest, and soon thereafter became an online sensation. He started popping up in all kinds of spooky photos - a faceless, bone-thin figure in a funeral suit faintly hovering in backgrounds of black-and-white photographs. More often than not, these photos were of kids, and thus Slender Man was mythologized as a supernatural child abductor. Those long spidery arms of his? The better to snatch your children with. Elaborate mythologies were born, fake videos and anecdotes were posted online, and somewhere along the way his image got so burrowed into the minds of a pair of 12-year-old Wisconsin girls that they attempted to please him by stabbing their friend 19 times and leaving her for dead.
For the purposes of Sylvain White's Slender Man, that real-life case is neither here nor there. Just a bit of background. The actual point is, a mysterious image like Slender Man is much more powerful as a suggestion than as a reality. I think White knows this and tries to split the difference. The film is not very good, but I'm a tad higher on it than others have been, if only because it at least attempts to reach into the murky subconscious space where its title character belongs. It falls into the same narrative trappings as its teen-supernatural-horror peers, but it catches itself, and winds up stuck balancing between the dumb plot-explanation version of horror and a more abstract form.
What makes the Slender Man such a less formidable presence in narrative form than in his natural freeze-framed habitat is that here he's confronted on a tangible level. There are rules and explanations to him. He's directly accessible. During a weekend sleepover, Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles), Wren (Joey King), Chloe (Jaz Sinclair) and Katie (Annalise Basso) go to a website and summon him. Then one of them disappears - whisked away by Slender Man one afternoon as if by hypnosis - and gradually the other three are affected, or infected, by his presence, while everyone else in town treats the event as a run-of-the-mill disappearance.
It is not my job to tell anyone how to make a movie, but allow me a well-considered observation-cum-suggestion: It seems like a mistake to present something so fundamentally inexplicable - something entirely built on the sinister secrecy of its aberrant existence - from the point-of-view of those directly trying to conjure it, those directly engaging with the mechanisms to communicate with it. That choice, by itself, dilutes the effectiveness of Slender Man as a formidable menace. It normalizes him, in a sense - specifically, within the film's internal logic. The characters have conversations all about Slender Man Internet mythology and then they're directed toward an easily accessible tool (a website) with which to find him. They're basically just sending him an email. Slenderman09 at hotmail dot com.
If the film (or let's say a film) had approached this from the outside, Slender Man himself could have retained his most potent quality - the sheer indecipherability of his presence. (His facelessness should be signal enough that there's no answer for him.) Consider a version in which the girl's sudden absence is treated as a mystery instead of the natural, pre-explained result of her own actions. Imagine Slender Man as rumor, myth - the unacceptable supernatural solution to a seemingly ordinary case of disappearance. A modern X-File.
Then again, you could also go further the other direction. If, like the real-life Wisconsin case (not to mention various other true-crime examples rooted in unhealthy preoccupation with myths and supernatural phenomena), the four central characters in Slender Man are to be the film's active instigators, there should be a whole lot more to it than simply "they went and did the Internet equivalent of the Bloody Mary mirror trick one night on a lark." If this lanky, enigmatic figure is supposed to have a real hold on those it targets (or who target him), then go with that. Is there a pseudo-religious madness to it? Possession? Obsession?
But, no, instead of any of that, the film proceeds as a collection of Internet searches and hallucinatory freakouts. To White's credit, he gives far less screen time to his eponymous villain than I would have expected, so I have to give him credit for handling it in a smarter way than a lot of filmmakers would have. At a certain point, the movie kinda breaks free of the narrative constraints and White finds a bit of rhythm as he wades through the delirium of his mystery in as much (literal) darkness as possible. Lots of scenes of empty streets and abandoned woods, with one or two characters - otherwise alone, as if the world has shut its doors to them - wandering through neighborhoods and forests trying to get their friend back, or reclaim their sanity. In these scenes there's a real sense of purpose that's otherwise lacking through most of Slender Man.
Perhaps White's half-measures - the vague psychological impulses combined with the clumsy, dime-a-dozen plotting - are the best we could expect, or the best Sony was ever going to give us with this opportunistic attempt at exploiting a once-trendy property. I doubt many other creepypastas will be getting the big-screen treatment anytime soon. At its best, Slender Man - and other mythical paranormal figures like him - possesses a delicate mystique. But his big-screen feature turns him into just another bogeyman.