The Pitch: One night, a group of four young women and best friends are sitting around, doing what teenagers do on a Friday night: getting drunk in a basement together and watching weird porn. Then, one of them decides that they should watch a video about the Slender Man, the longtime Internet legend about a thin, faceless figure that exists in the woods and abducts or brainwashes innocent children. They watch the video, each unsettled in their own way. And then, one of them disappears. Suddenly, the remaining trio are having visions of the Slender Man. Visions they can’t shake. Visions that’re often a little blurry, due to budgetary considerations. Soon they have to learn, the hard way, just how much sacrifice the Slender Man demands.
How Did They Make a Movie About the Slender Man?: One of the more curious facets of translating the Slender Man legend to movie screens (because, let’s be honest, this was always going to happen one of these days) is the disconnect between what a movie like Slender Man perceives as unsettling about the figure, and what’s actually made it such an enduring focal point of the creepypasta universe. The horror of the Slender Man 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. It’s a very internal, spine-level kind of fear, which doesn’t tend to translate to visual media in the way that it’s so often effective on the written page/screen.
Cerebral terror isn’t the business that Slender Man, the end-of-summer Screen Gems release, finds itself in. This is boilerplate PG-13 stuff, and aside from squeezing in a couple more F-words than the rating has historically allowed, there’s nothing entirely too unsettling here. The film leans heavily on images of its central foursome (Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, and Annalise Basso) staring in escalating terror at rustling forests for much of its first half, and when Slendy himself does make his presence known, he’s often cloaked in partial shadow, or barely visible at all. 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. Instead, it’s a lot of heavy bass tones and fake-out jump scares, for audiences who’ll leave wanting something more lasting and unsettling.
The Verdict: The first major problem with Slender Man is that it’s not anywhere near as scary as many of the fan-made mockups that can be found online right now, but the second and arguably bigger one is that it’s barely a Slender Man story. From the video-based “terrors” of the premise to the muted, Pacific Northwest aesthetics, Slender Man is such a flagrant rip-off of The Ring that Gore Verbinski may as well have been credited as a producer. Where that film at least set coherent timelines and stakes for its characters, however, Slender Man simply infects the young women and toys with them as the setpieces necessitate. There are a couple of halfway decent shocks placed throughout, particularly a perspective-abusing chase through a library’s stacks, but the film too frequently leans on the flawed assumption that the Slender Man alone is inherently terrifying, and that showing what might be him in a quickly edited shot will capture what makes the idea so frightening.
It’s also more than a little tasteless, when you consider that the “innocent high schoolers corrupted by the Slender Man” premise is at best a nod to the terrible real-life incident concerning the character, and at worst an actively exploitative riff on it. Good horror has come from the depravity of everyday life before, but Slender Man is in the business of cheap thrills, rather than meditation, and the thrills aren’t nearly enough to sustain it. The pacing regularly drags even at 90 minutes, and the plodding story goes after its characters at such an infrequent clip that the inconsistent plotting and sparse scares are all the more inexcusable. There’s plenty of foot-dragging, but not a lot in the way of established mood or lingering alarm, and that’s perhaps the most disappointing thing of all about Slender Man: it’s somehow way less scary than the spooky memes a bunch of internet dorks made up.
Where’s It Playing?: Slender Man is hiding in the corners of your local multiplex, out now in wide release.