Tasteless and painfully generic, Slender Man miserably fails to capitalise on the allure of the title character.
Once upon a time, you’d hear the story of the Slender Man at a camping trip or a sleepover, around a crackling bonfire or in the torch-lit chasm beneath a bed sheet. A modern urban myth, it tells of a rakish bogeyman with a face of staticky mush that kidnaps and terrorises children. But you can trace the origins back to a 2009 “creepypasta” meme; a strain of viral internet folklore pumped along fizzing digital pathways, to email inboxes and message boards. These days, nightmare fuel can seep onto the phones and tablets and laptops of your children without you even realising. And these days, tall tales can become so prominent that they inspire real-life violence.
That the Slender Man legend is so closely associated with at least one attempted murder gives Sylvain White’s new film a twinge of illicit appeal. Horror is a genre built on real and imagined transgressions; any closeness to reality is tempting, which is why so many purport to be based on real events or true stories. If Slender Man seems in bad taste, it clearly wasn’t sour enough to prevent Sony from releasing it, even if they did so halfway through August.
The film’s aspirations are obvious: to be for the viral-video demographic what The Ring was for the VHS era, even though Rings itself tried to do that and failed spectacularly. But Slender Man, especially this version, doesn’t really have anything to say about the perils of runaway online phenomena. It’s more the story of how a wily guy named Eric Knudsen introduced onto a web forum a gangly ghoul that somehow inspired a bottomless trove of associated multimedia tat. The only noteworthy thing about the myth, besides its sheer pervasiveness, is that he kept hold of the rights.
Perhaps in an attempt to dispel association with copycat crimes and suchlike, White has largely done away with the character’s pop-cultural ubiquity and rendered his film equally faceless, any suggestion of a better movie made to vanish more swiftly than Slender Man’s victims. It is set in a nameless little community – calling it a “town” would be upselling it – comprised of a high school and some creepy woods and some dull teenagers, who trundle along gloomy streets and wander into an interminable melange of jump-scares and arbitrary horror-movie visual bits, from groping hands to foul dreams to suddenly-morphing faces.
This is all to rescue Katie (Annalise Basso), who disappears after about ten minutes and requires a sacrifice in order to retrieve – that’s a typical Slender Man thing, by the way, a lightly arrogant touch to round out his other habits of stealing children, targeting people who go through his internet history, and peering out from behind trees. He also makes those who summon his go insane, which is bad news for Katie’s woefully underwritten clique, Wren (Joey King), Chloe (Jaz Sinclair) and Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles).
What follows is aggressively conventional and perilously under-lit, often in a way that obscures the film’s scant instances of interesting imagery and visual language. You get the sense of a better film, or at least a less derivative one, if only the lights would lift for long enough to find it. Then again, those tortuously brief moments of imagination and verve are reliably crippled by stale filmmaking, flat acting, and laughable writing, so perhaps it’s better to keep them hidden after all.