During the press rounds for his coming-of-age teenage dramedy, Eighth Grade, director Bo Burnham has told anybody who will listen about how beneficial it was to speak with actual eighth graders. “Facebook doesn’t happen anymore,” Burnham told Consequence of Sound. ‘Kids aren’t on Facebook. Facebook was written into the script, and then I talked to the kids, and they were like, ‘We’re not on Facebook.’”
I couldn’t help but think of Burnham’s anecdote while watching Sony’s viral slasher Slender Man. Early in the film, a group of teenage girls is texting one another, trying to figure out what to do about their missing friend. One girl mentions printing out flyers. Another says she will “post to FB.”
These are members of a generation representing the most connected, communicative, and technologically savvy human beings in the history of the species… printing fliers and posting to Mark Zuckerberg’s grandma meme machine. Suffice it to say, Slender Man isn’t particularly concerned with paying attention to details.
Ultimately, that doesn’t need to be a huge issue. This isn’t Eighth Grade–it’s not trying to depict a generation as accurately and lovingly as possible. This is a PG-13 horror film. It’s trying to scare that generation enough to justify spending $11 on a Friday night movie ticket. The problem is Slender Man doesn’t do that. Slender Man doesn’t do much of anything. It’s as inert, by-the-book, and punishingly boring as horror comes.
Slender Man features a gaggle of high school girls (I think “gaggle” is the technical term) who are bored with their small Massachusetts town. Though the name of their town nor Red Sox MVP candidate Mookie Betts are never mentioned, so this could really be anywhere. After hearing that a group of boys are going to spend their Friday night “summoning” internet boogeyman Slender Man, Wren (Joey King), Hallie (Julia Golden Telles), Chloe (Jaz Sinclair), and Katie (Annalise Basso) decide to gather at Katie’s trailer home and do the same.
The crew opens up Katie’s laptop, does some Googling, and before they know it are watching a hypnotic video of the be-suited, be-tentacled internet dandy haunting some trees. The girls are clearly affected by the video and one week later Katie disappears into the woods. The remaining friends are forced to confront that maybe Slender Man isn’t just some internet urban legend after all.
The worst part of Slender Man is the slender dude, himself. Slender Man is a uniquely online creation. He arose from a photoshop contest on the Something Awful forums in 2009. Poster Eric Knudson (under the user name “Victor Surge”) added a tall, thin, blank-faced creature wearing a suit to some old-timey photographs. The effect is legitimately chilling–people from the distant past living their lives without realizing a Lovecraftian horror looms behind them.
Slender Man would go on to become a cherished creepypasta and internet urban legend. Countless other people produced images, stories, and even videos depicting the collective subconscious’ favorite new monster. Of course things would get dark in 2014 when two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin stabbed their classmate 19 times and later claimed their attempted murder was so that they could be welcomed into Slender Man’s woodland murder kingdom. The film didn’t open in Milwaukee-area theaters on Friday for that very reason.
It’s clear that Slender Man has (or at least had) a hold on the internet’s imagination. The appeal of the monster is that he’s a blank slate. The concept of him is chilling but also Spartan enough (he literally has a blank face) that all manner of internet lifers can project their own personal horrors upon him.
Slender Man takes away that blank slate and replaces it with the most generic movie monster imaginable. The film attempts to establish some Ring-style “rules” to Slender Man to create a sense of creeping horror. The problem is the rules are confusing, inconsistently applied, and completely lame. Those who watch the Slender Man video (it’s not clear which Slender Man video as the web contains thousands) will hear a bell then… think about Slender Man a lot? The next step is that Slender Man will attack you… or he won’t? Maybe he loves you and wants you to come live with him… or maybe he wants you to go crazy? None of it really makes any sense.
An inconsistent movie monster isn’t inherently a bad one. The shark in Jaws has no motivation beyond eating whatever’s around him and it makes him unpredictable, terrifying, and compelling. But Slender Man’s motivations and, indeed, very nature are so inconsistently applied that it makes him utterly worthless as a threat.
Also, as with many CGI-challenged movie monsters before him, Slender Man likes to spend a lot of his time in the shadows and the darkened woods, meaning we rarely get a satisfying glimpse at him. And when we do, there is none of that Lovecraftian intrigue. His face looks like a stale and cracked beige Play-Doh egg rather than a terrifyingly blank cadaveric visage. He also really, really, loves the woods and it’s not clear why. His favorite pastime is cracking branches. He’s like the disappointing carpenter of movie monsters.
At times the characters call up videos of Slender Man online that have been created by actual Slender Man fans. Each time without fail the fan-crafted, barely-glimpsed Slender Men looks much scarier than the one in the more expensive feature film.
It’s not clear what the film is trying to accomplish with Slender Man. He’s not allegorical or metaphorical. The concept of Pied Pipers and other kid-abducting villains is briefly introduced but just as quickly forgotten. Slender Man cares as little about the mythology of its beast as it does about making him scary. At one point, a character tries to articulate that Slender Man is like a virus, but not for a computer–for a brain. You know, like actual god damn viruses.
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In addition to a weak antagonist, the movie has some real, inexplicable animosity toward its protagonists. Trashy slasher horror has a long, storied history for punishing women for having the audacity to have sex. None of the lead characters in Slender Man are overtly sexual so the movie decides to punish them for…using a computer? Slender Man gets unexpectedly preachy in its final act, undoubtedly trying to send all the kids home scared, when in reality all its doing is needlessly punishing its characters more and turning everyone off.
It must be admitted, however, I am not a teenager. Maybe the kids really will connect with the “message” and go home scared. If the mostly teenage crowd I saw the movie with is any indication, however, that’s not likely. About 40 minutes into the film, a teen sitting behind me loudly muttered to his friends “Fucking shit, this is boring.”