(Sony Pictures 2018, directed by Sylvain White, 93 mins.)
I was not looking forward to watching this film.
As long time Grail readers will know, I’ve been writing about Slenderman from the first few months of his existence. I’ve seen the remarkable burst of creativity (nearly all amateur, and nearly all anonymous) that resulted from that first somethingawful.com thread nine years ago; I smiled as the wider internet got to know Slendy through Marble Hornets and Slender: The Arrival. I watched, aghast, as the news came in from Waukesha, Wisconsin almost exactly five years into Slenderman’s life of a twelve year old girl knifed nearly to death by two school friends who wanted to become Proxies to Slenderman.
Since then, the Waukesha attack has dominated discussions about Slenderman, and rightfully so. Nonetheless, various attempts have been made to take this open-source monster, this creation of passionate amateurs, and commercialise it.
Most commercial film attempts to utilize the Slenderman mythos fell by the wayside; only a couple made it to screens. (Of these, the most successful – Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story – was well-made but lacking in the immediacy and brutal horror punch of its ancestor.) For Sony Pictures to bring out a full-length film on the subject post-Waukesha was always going to be a dicey proposition.
The situation was not improved by a push-back from the father of attacker Anissa Weier against the film and a resulting petition, insisting that the film’s portrayal of devastated families was disrespectful, based entirely on an early trailer – resulting in the studio recutting the film extensively at the last moment. (This surprisingly good piece at American Conservative details the issue.) Nonetheless, the film was released to cinemas a few months back, and is now available to buy.
The final film is, to my surprise (especially after harsh reviews, one of which refers to it as ‘the final nail in the coffin’ of the mythos), not actually bad: it’s a solid B-movie, beautifully shot and scored and with some good performances. But, it is not a good Slenderman movie.
Set in Massachusetts, the film has four teenage girls become absorbed into the Slenderman mythology after the school rumour mill tells them of a website which allows users to perform a Slenderman summoning ritual. After hearing of some boys who were attempting this (but, it later turns out, chickened out), they gather in the basement of Katie (Annalise Basco, previously in the excellent Oculus) one bored night and watch the ritual.
The idea of an online rite (shown as a combination of sounds – three tolling bells – and ‘blipvert’ visuals full of eye-in-the-pyramid and other generic occult imagery) does not appear in Slenderman canon until now: here, the film is drawing more on American remakes of Japanese horror films such as The Ring and Ju-On: The Grudge, which sets the tone for what follows.
Katie disappears. The other girls start seeing… something on the edge of vision.
Slenderman knows them, now – and it is coming for them.
Things progress from here pretty much as the tropes of modern horror dictate. The appearances of Slenderman (played by Javier Botet, but mostly seen as a series of CGI effects) are clearly linked to the surrounding woodlands; which is very in keeping with canon, and adds an element of the increasingly popular folk horror subgenre to the proceedings – although towards the end, this lapses into elements of the Angry Molesting Tree trope as seen in The Evil Dead and The Cabin In The Woods. (There’s a parallel to another folk horror film released around the same time – the excellent Apostle – about being absorbed by Nature, but what is apotheosis in Apostle is mere horror here.)
However, the most fascinating elements of the mythos – the metatextural elements of Slenderman proxies knowing he was invented on the internet but becoming real as a kind of ‘tulpa’ – are completely ignored, aside from a final scene voice-over.
The jumps are well-judged for the most part, aided by the scoring by Ramin Djawadi (best known for Game of Thrones and Westworld, he worked with the director on a couple of episodes of one of my favourite TV shows of recent years, Person Of Interest) and Brandon Campbell. (Much of the music owes a debt to one of the venerable ancestors of modern soundtracks, John Corigliano’s score for Altered States.)
Director Sylvian White (best known for his debut Stomp The Yard and the excellent comic adaptation The Losers, as well as many episodes of US TV) and cinematographer Luca Del Puppo bring a haunting beauty to the film, especially in the many woodland sequences: the soft radiant lighting on the cast highlighting their eventual surrender to the dark. The mostly young cast acquit themselves well (it is worth noting that Taylor Richardson as Lizzie bears a striking resemblance to Waukesha attacker Morgan Geiser).
But there is an emptiness to it all. There’s no way at this point to know where the edits were made, but I suspect many of them were around the devastation of Katie’s alcoholic and abusive father, played by the always-superb Kevin Chapman (who had one of the best secondary character arcs in recent TV on Person Of Interest as Lionel Fusco), whose story amounts to two cameo scenes in this version. Though the release version coheres somewhat plot-wise, I can’t help but wonder about the original cut.
But, in the end, the professionalism and millions of dollars put into this project never produce anything as remotely compelling as Marble Hornets, which was made for less than the film’s craft service budget. Amateur, after all, means ‘made for the love of the thing’ – there is no sign of love for the thing here at all.
In the end, what’s left is a perfectly fine low-end horror flick which adds nothing of worth to the overall Slenderman mythos.