The quartet of teenage female protagonists at the center of Slender Man will remind horror fans of a certain age of The Craft, another film that featured a foursome of high schoolers navigating the perils of adolescents along with some supernatural terror. Unlike that film (and just about every other film that features a group of young women) they never turn on each other, fight over boys, or ever refer to one another as bitches or sluts (even in that joking-but-not-joking way). They don’t always see eye-to-eye and they occasionally butt heads, but never denigrate or demean each other-even though such behaviors are often emphasized and even encouraged in portrayals of teenage hotties. For this reason alone, Slender Man director Sylvain White and screenwriter David Birke deserve recognition and applause.
For the uninitiated, Slender Man is based on the fictional villain created by Victor Surge in the early 2000s. The tall, faceless stalker became a paradigm of the creepypasta phenomenon that flourished among Internet-obsessed millennials. Along with Jeff the Killer and Eyeless Jack, Slender Man represented a new wave of storytelling and urban legend-building where original ideas were elaborated upon and expanded in fan forums and Reddit pages until they literally took on lives of their own. Unfortunately, as is the case with any fandom, there are those who take things to extremes, blurring the lines between fiction and reality and, in many ways, Slender Man is as much about this obsession as it is a fictional specter.
Slender Man has history working against it. For starters, the film comes at least 5 years past the character’s prime. While he may seem new to some, Slender’s old school for anyone who’s explored the darker corners of the Internet on the regular. Had this film been released in 2013, for example, I image it could have been a contender for Best Horror Movie of the year. Today, however, there’s something so familiar about the film’s focus, it already feels dated to more savvy genre aficionados. Then there’s the fact that Slender Man carries some baggage today that it didn’t have back in 2013.
In 2014, two Wisconsin pre-teens lured a classmate into the woods and attempted to murder her in an attempt to curry favor with Slender Man. The subsequent media circus and trial that followed thrust the creepypasta character into the mainstream for all the worst reasons. As is usually the case, this tragic event was politicized with the Internet and extreme fandom singled out for special demonization. When Slender Man went into production last winter, Bill Weier, the father of one of the Wisconsin perpetrators seethed, telling the AP last January:
“It’s absurd they want to make a movie like this. It’s popularizing a tragedy is what it’s doing. I’m not surprised, but in my opinion, it’s extremely distasteful. All we’re doing is extending the pain all three of these families have gone through.”
And it seemed like Sony’s feet got mighty cold. Slender Man‘s original release date was May 28th, but they booted it back to August 24th last January. The film was then pushed forward to August 10th in a move that pitted it against the hotly-anticipated “The Meg”; some hypothesize the studio hoped any new controversy Slender Man kicked up might be hidden behind a Megalodon-sized shadow. It’s also worth noting that, last June, some of the film’s distributors considered filing suit against Sony (or exercising a reversion of rights) claiming the studio had failed to live up to its pre-release promotional obligations. So, while we should be glad, in some respects, that Slender Man ever made it to big screens at all, there’s been much ado about nothing. Whether or not the real-life controversy surrounding this fictional character actually impacted the film will take time to evaluate. But it has me wondering what Slender Man could have been were execs unphased by the prospect of misguided, puritanical backlash-what envelopes might have been pushed?
Slender Man isn’t a bad film, and I actually liked it more than The Meg. It’s more mature than you might think, emphasizing mood and a creepy aesthetic over overt jump scares and loud noises. And it’s smart, offering a plethora (perhaps too many) potential explanations regarding what the titular Slender Man actually is, ranging from the pre-biblical to the cutting edge. And while this leave audiences plenty of gray space for ongoing theories and hypothesizing, it also leaves more literary-minded viewer a bit perplexed. And not because we don’t know who or what Slender Man is, but because we don’t know what he represents.
9 times out of 10, the villain in a teen-centric horror movie represents a larger idea or concept: Emerging sexuality, jealousy, greed, oppression, and drugs are all examples. But while Slender Man feels like a cautionary tale, it’s hard to pinpoint what the symbolic villain is. As presented, Slender Man could be a metaphor for drugs, escapism, or obsession, but the film never provides a sustained parallel. There’s even some pregnancy imagery, but it feels added on and out of whack with the rest of the film. It’s almost as though the filmmakers took every disparate element associated with Slender Man mythology and threw it all into the same pot, hoping to simmer up a tasty jambalaya of terror. What the subject matter needed, however, was a more focused preparation; a simpler yet more satisfying dish.
At its best, Slender Man harkens the bleak, techno-terror of films like The Ring and The Pulse; a hospital sequence delivers some Jacob’s Ladder caliber creepiness. The 4 female leads, Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, and Annalise Basso, make a great ensemble, displaying legitimate chemistry and forging genuine emotional bonds. It’s not a home run by any stretch of the imagination, but Slender Man has a lot more going for it than most PG-13 rated horror offerings.