Sylvain White’s horror film attempts to bring an internet meme to life.
One of the most boring wide-release horror flicks of recent years, Sylvain White’s Slender Man attempts to make a conventional feature out of an internet phenomenon whose appeal seems to rest largely on its folkloric amorphousness. Older audiences that know nothing of the meme (which has inspired countless bits of fan fiction and even been associated with acts of real-world violence) will find nothing here to explain its popularity. Hustling the movie into theaters without showing it to critics, Screen Gems evidently hopes to milk that popularity for some quick cash before word of the film’s poor quality spreads. But the internet is fast.
The character (though it’s a helluva stretch to call him that) was born on a web forum in 2009, in response to a contest looking for creepy Photoshopped images. A contributor with the pen name “Victor Surge” took two old photos of children and pasted a tall, thin, faceless figure into the background, then added captions vaguely referencing horrible crimes. World-conquering memes have been built on less, and this one seems to have inspired both nightmares and mass fascination.
Here, David Birke’s screenplay introduces a quartet of girlfriends who haven’t yet heard the lore. They’re sitting in a basement watching porn when the topic comes up: It turns out some boys they hang out with are getting together in hopes of summoning the mysterious Slender Man; the girls decide to beat them to it. A couple of web searches later, they’ve come across one of those magical videos that infect the souls of everyone who watch them. (Theaters who’ve placed warnings outside screenings of Incredibles 2 should do the same here: Though hardly scary, this video is aggressive enough in its strobe effects that it could trigger epileptic seizures.)
This little seance fizzles, inspiring less discomfort than a sleepover session of “Bloody Mary.” But the girls start having nightmares the following week, and then one of them, Katie (Annalise Basso), disappears into the woods on a school trip. Realizing eventually that they’re caught up in something supernatural, the remaining girls learn they may be able to strike a deal with the Slender Man, who is famous for kidnapping kids. “We can unveil ourselves,” one explains: By bringing items of sentimental value out to the forest at night and destroying them, they might be able to get Katie back.
Well, that’s not how things go. Moving at a soporific pace (you’d never believe the film’s just an hour and a half), White and Birke show each girl becoming more infected by the Slender Man’s “bioelectric” energy as days go by. Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles) and Wren (Joey King), in particular, start piecing together old lore in hopes of breaking this spell. They might do better by renting Ringu, Nightmare on Elm Street and The Blair Witch Project.
These competent actresses deserve actual characters to play, but Birke’s screenplay is as devoid of personality as the faceless cipher stalking its heroes. As for the monster, he feels like a third-rate knockoff — less a primal manifestation of society’s fears than a generic riff on stale horror tropes.
Ideally, a movie like this would evoke the liminal space between consciousness and dreams, lulling viewers into a willingness to believe the kind of nonsense you stumble on to at 3 a.m., at the bottom of a rabbit hole of web searches. Instead of hypnotizing us, though, the film mostly tests viewers’ ability to stay awake — and the one or two actual creepy moments it has up its sleeve come far, far too late to be potent. Those who’ve shivered at Slender Man mythology over the last few years would surely have a lot more fun staying home and writing their own stories.
Production companies: Mythology Entertainment, Madhouse Entertainment
Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Julia Goldani Telles, Joey King, Jaz Sinclair, Annalise Basso, Alex Fitzalan, Taylor Richardson, Javier Botet
Director: Sylvain White
Screenwriter: David Birke
Producers: Robyn Meisinger, William Sherak, Sarah Snow, James Vanderbilt
Executive producers: Ryan H. Cunningham, Tracey Nyberg, Louis Sallerson
Director of photography: Luca Del Puppo
Production designer: Jeremy Woodward
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Editor: Jake York
Composers: Brandon Campbell, Ramin Djawadi
Casting director: Nancy Nayor
PG-13, 93 minutes