Even if you’re one of the most talented filmmakers alive, it’s gotta be a weird-ass thing to make a movie based on a creepypasta. These viral short stories, spread about on the internet, are good for some mild skin-crawling and (more likely) a boatload of laughs, but there’s nothing inherently weird about it: Most horror is based in popular folklore, and what’s the best archive of it today? The internet, of course, though one might argue that these are fads, and not so much the stuff of legends. Well, Sony, Screen Gems, and director Sylvain White have made a several-million dollar bet that you’ll pay cash to see one on the big screen. They’re not that confident in that you’ll actually try to do that, given that they wanted to sell the fucking movie to Netflix back in May, but since they didn’t have any takers, well, you’ve got Slender Man to go see this weekend.
In case you don’t know, the Slender Man was created on the Something Awful forums back in 2009 during one of their weekly photoshop battles, where a dude photoshopped a faceless suit-clad man in the back of an old photo. It was pretty creepy, and people began spinning their own stories with this character — writing more creepypastas, creating video games, making fan art — until the fad had sort of passed by, and Hollywood decided to make a movie about it. The results are about as bad as you might expect, though it’s merely just bad and not existentially troubling as The Emoji Movie was last year.
Slender Man centers around four high schoolers — Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles), who has a sister, Katie (Annalise Basso), whose dad is a drunk, Chloe (Jaz Sinclair), who doesn’t have a dad, and Wren (Joey King), who… uh, who… ah, who gives a shit — who, during a drunken sleepover, decide to investigate the Slender Man urban legend. They’re directed to a weird internet video which will help them summon the monster, and they watch it. Much like in the Ring movies, bad shit starts to happen: Katie goes missing, and in the process of trying to re-summon the creature, Chloe sees his face, which drives her mad. So, Wren and Hallie have to try and find some way to stop this monster/god/thing from killing them too. There’s not much here, honestly: aside from forgetting to describethe bare-bones second act conflict between Wren and Hallie (which basically amounts to Hallie saying “I want to go on a date, so I’m suddenly going to ignore everything I’ve seen in the last two weeks and call you a crazy bitch for trying to save my life, Wren” and pissing off to make out with her vinyl-loving boyfriend), I gave you the whole plot, save the third act. Still, we knew this wasn’t going to win any Oscars: why the fuck did it have to be so boring?
A lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of the director. White’s never been a particularly good filmmaker — his last true shot at the big time came in 2010 with The Losers, back when people thought they could hang franchises on guys like Jeffery Dean Morgan — but you’ve got to wonder what on Earth he was thinking here. PG-13 horror is, as I’ve mentioned before, a necessity to introduce younger viewers to the genre, but good lord, I can think of twenty other films with the same rating that are scarier than this horseshit. People turn into trees, or get stalked around a perspective-shifting library (created entirely in After Effects, I’m sure), or get called off into the woods, and all of it is accompanied by the kind of sub-Fincher montages that make a Bray Wyatt promo look like the work of Stan Brakhage. Everything is underexposed and dark as fuck, to the point that my theater’s lobby lights hurt my eyes when the movie ended. You can’t really make out shit, and I guess that’s a good thing, given that you really don’t want to be seeing any of this in the first place.
Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast here — you are, after all, dealing with a tall white character whose defining aesthetic is that he doesn’t have a face but who somehow has access to a nice tailor — and one’s expectations for the film’s style and scares should be limited to the subject matter of your garden-variety r/nosleep post. Some attempts are made to tie the Slender Man to other cryptids and myths, but by the time Joey King googles “Pied Piper,” I had fully checked out of it. And that reluctance to commit to any origin story for this character might the most maddening thing of all about this film: we have no understanding of this character’s powers or limitations, and his motivations are unclear at best. If he wants to snatch children away for his nefarious purposes, why is he going after high schoolers? How has he been active for thousands of years if you have to watch a Youtube video to summon him? It’s almost as if the filmmakers are afraid of going against the audience’s perceptions of the character, and because, as a meme, he means different things to different people, there’s not a single approach that they could have taken to satisfy every viewer. It could also be to ward off the coming lawsuits, but who knows?
Anyways, it’s not like you’re going to give a damn about whether or not Sony bigwigs get sued over this, because you’re not going to give a shit about anything on screen. Slender Man takes no time whatsoever to develop its characters or makes them stand out in any meaningful way (somewhere there’s an essay here about how the homogenization of cinematic teen style has hurt character coding), so you can probably guess what happens to them. It’s as unsatisfying as you might expect, but, undeterred, the movie gets even worse. In a supremely trashy ending narration, the film acknowledges, begrudgingly, that people “hear about crimes committed in the name of” the well-tailored cryptid, which supposedly is meant to allude to the real-world stabbing of a 12 year-old Wisconsin girl by two of her schoolmates back in 2014, who were looking to pay tribute to the fictional monster.
This was probably the easiest chasm to avoid when doing a horror movie based on a Something Awful meme, and leave it to a Screen Gems film to stumble into it, arms flailing wildly. Perhaps most egregiously, that story, captured in the fascinating HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman from 2017, is significantly scarier than offered up by White and company, no matter how many high schoolers turn into trees or faceless fellows come after you.