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slender man

I went to see SLENDER MAN with a friend, and like most people who saw it, I was extremely disappointed. Of course, it didn’t help that opening night audiences tend to be the most unpredictable. There are always rude people, but you never know where they’re going to sit. The couple sitting next to me were eating complicated food, so in the middle of a movie that’s densely dark most of the time, they had their phone lights on to see what they were eating. Bright lights. Dark theater. Dark screen. The light glared out the darkness, and this little magpie is easily distracted by bright, shiny, moving objects. Did. Not. Work. Who freaking does this?

I’m not somebody to call people on their bullshit, because I’m short and meek and not prepared to follow through if the other people get aggressive. But man, I just kept getting more and more annoyed. Then the guy next to me kept checking his phone even after they finished eating, and when he stopped, he eventually started snoring. Just… *choking gestures*

Even without nightmarish neighbors, SLENDER MAN fell far short of its potential. After the theatrical viewing, I was a bit confused, because I’d had the sense after watching the trailer a few months earlier that the movie would go in a much different direction. I re-watched the trailer again, and it definitely telegraphs a different storyline and some more violent moments.

It makes me think that the backlash to the trailer because of the ‘based on true events’ exploitative nature of the movie caused the showrunners to take their movie in a different direction–changing in edits, perhaps some script rewriting and reshooting. I’m not sure where they were in production at the time of the trailer, and I’m not sure whether the original story would have been more than a decent but forgettable movie. But from what I can tell, if they did significantly change the film, they changed it into something not as good.

Slender Man has been Internet creepypasta for roughly a decade, created out of nothing to become something of a meme. That’s not a long life for a viral monster of this kind, but he’ll probably stick around much longer, because he’s an amalgam of several iconic, creepy images and references similar creatures through history–from the Tall Man who was supposed to be the devil, to the faceless Bogeyman, to the Gentlemen from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, to the Men in Black (not the comics/movie, but the archetype), and perhaps the closest analog for me, the Terrible Trivium from THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. Too-long limbs and facelessness are creepy and there’s really nothing new about him, hence Slender Man will probably stick around the Collective.

He was ripe for a movie of his own eventually. The problem, it seems, is with the timing.

The controversy of this movie comes from the fact that just four years ago, two twelve-year-old girls stabbed their friend (who fortunately survived). They claimed they did so to impress Slender Man and were sentenced to a mental facility. By violent, personal tragedy standpoint, there was probably never a good time to make a movie off of this, but since Hollywood is no stranger to exploiting tragedy for a dollar, I think a general rule of thumb is waiting at least ten years out of respect. But they would have started filming SLENDER MAN within two to three years of the attack, and it was put out four years later, which goes under the heading of Too Soon.

And technically, the concept of SLENDER MAN has been around pretty long in a netscape, so it might have actually been too late to capitalize on the viral nature of this particular creepypasta. Too late for viral, too early for tragedy.

The problem with having to weigh the real tragedy with what they were able to do in the fiction was that something a little closer to actual events, which is what the trailer hinted at, would have been a much better story. What’s creepier, a standard supernatural stalker film where you barely see the haunting? Or Slender Man actually inciting violence, both against the teens’ will and/or in accordance with it, and causing genuine insanity, not some poor imitation? (True, we learn something about one of the characters at the end, but it was a case of too little, too late, and too confusing.) In other words, if SLENDER MAN had been a bit closer to SINISTER or THE PULSE, it might have been salvageable.

As the movie ended up, it’s a mash-up of the supernatural-Bogeyman-stalking-friends element of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake and the ghost-in-the-machine element of THE RING, while falling short of both. I’m actually a fan of the NIGHTMARE remake, which is a bit verboten to say, although I don’t like it more than the original. And THE RING is one of the best modern horror films (wasn’t a fan of RINGU, so I probably deserve to be drawn and quartered again).

If you’re going to put a creepy video in your movie that triggers the whole haunting like a net version of THE RING video, maybe you should make it actually, um, creepy. THE RING video benefited from being truly unsettling in its simplicity, with something as plain and stark as a wooden ladder on a wall alone giving a serious American Gothic vibe. The SLENDER MAN video is just a series of subliminal images, none of which are creepy on their own, and some of which go by so fast you don’t have time to get unsettled. If you’re going to invite comparison, you better make sure yours measures up.

As a concept, I feel like they had something that could have been interesting to work with even within the story they created. In their flimsy mythology that expanded upon the creepypasta, SLENDER MAN was an other-dimensional entity so strange to our dimension that to come into contact with him could change your perception, even cause a person to go mad. And they kept hinting at it happening, but aside from a few trippy moments (the library scene stands out as a respectable perception distortion, although I wish they would have done something less trippy and more creepy), they missed so many opportunities to play on paranoia and hallucination and instead got too attached to character denial and ineffectual effects. No madness. Not enough violence. Not enough paranoia. Not enough unsettling. You want an excellent example of slipping into madness that may or may not be real? Look no further than a movie that came out earlier this year, HEREDITARY.

Instead, there were a lot of plot details that padded the middle but never went anywhere. Cuts, edits, and rewrites obscured the original momentum and arc of the story to the point of meandering pointlessness.

There was proof that Annalise Basso’s character was obsessed with SLENDER MAN. And Basso is wonderfully disquieting in an unfortunately brief role. I wish the movie had used that sociopathic gleam and little smile more, perhaps as a proxy that Slender Man used to haunt them and convince them to do things, maybe even as the ultimately primary antagonist, with Slender Man as the instrument of her destruction. I feel like it was a big missed opportunity, especially since being willingly used by Slender Man would have been right up the character’s alley. Nothing ever happened with the revelation of that obsession, except that the Joey King character, Wren, starts researching more. But THE RING’s journalist Rachel, Wren is not. Industrious for a teen, but there’s only so much a girl can do.

There was suggestion that both the girls’ friend Chloe, played by Jaz Sinclair, and the protagonist’s boy toy started experiencing the madness. There was a scene in the trailer where Chloe was supposed to stab herself with a scalpel during science class. The actual science class scenes were dreadfully dull. We saw a burn/bruise of a hand on the boyfriend after he’d promised not to watch the video (another element cribbed from THE RING). But neither of those elements went anywhere. In HEREDITARY, the question you the viewer always asked yourself was “Is this real or just insanity?” If you can tell which one it is in a horror movie about madness, then that horror movie isn’t doing its job. We know Slender Man is doing it, so you’ve got to be creepier about the ‘it’ he’s doing.

Then there’s Slender Man himself, played by Javier Botet. Like Doug Jones, Botet has made a career of being tall, slender, bony, and flexible. But in the movies I’ve seen him in, like CRIMSON PEAK, MAMA, THE CONJURING 2, and here in SLENDER MAN, a heavy hand with CGI renders his physique and performance little more than poor motion capture. There might as well have never been a man there at all. I wish they’d taken a page from Doug Jones’ repertoire, which involves far more prosthetic work (although he’s no stranger to bad CGI, see LEGION). What they created could have been something taken from a video game. As I’ve said before, if I see the CGI-ness of it, I don’t believe it. And if I don’t believe it, you’ve failed. I understand CGI-ing the tentacles, but Slender Man is such a simple, iconic image, there was literally no reason they had to over-CGI the man himself. Isn’t a real man with no face creepier than creating a man with no face?

The really frustrating part is that the central female cast was actually fantastic. Annalise Basso (OCULUS) and Joey King (THE CONJURING, WISH UPON) are no strangers to the genre. Jaz Sinclair was decent. Julia Telles was our protagonist, and she and Joey King carry the movie. Telles has a radiance I remember from her BUNHEAD days that’s just begging for the right vehicle now that she’s grown up. She would be a helluva main girl in a good horror film. She has all of Katie Holmes’ freshness but more charm.

However, with the incoherent plot, the twist at the end that I still don’t quite get (would probably need to rewatch the movie to see if I understand, but I kinda don’t want to see it again), and the movie’s excessive caution that led to too toothless of a story, SLENDER MAN was just such a profound failure that, in my opinion, sinks even beneath ONE MISSED CALL. I’d rather watch THE RING 2. At least it’s pretty, and it has Simon Baker’s smile, one of my favorite horror soundtracks, and Naomi Watts, which forgives a multitude of sins.