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(AUTHOR’S NOTE: My friends and I called it ‘Slenderman’. The 2018 film called it ‘Slender Man’. I will use those two spellings to differentiate between the two.)
I grew up in the height of the Slenderman craze.
I was in the early years of high school when ‘Slender’, the online horror flash-game featuring the titular Slenderman as its antagonist, was released. My friends and I would huddle up in a dark room and play it, with the volume booming. We’d run out of the room screaming after jump-scares.
It was all silly, stupid fun.
But I wanted more than silly, stupid fun from Slender Man.
Directed with undeniable visual gusto by Sylvain White, and starring a quartet of likable young actresses, this movie had a lot going for it. It even featured Javier Botet, one of the greatest working creature actors, as its antagonist! Botet terrified in movies like Mama (2013) and REC. (2007), but he is utterly wasted here.
The main issues with Slender Man come from the film’s basic misunderstanding of what actually made Slenderman scary in the first place. When we were kids, my friends and I would spend hours poring over the supposed ‘accounts’ of encounters with the creature, watching videos (shout-out to Marble Hornets!), and coming up with our own stories.
Slenderman was documented on the internet, but he didn’t exist there. He existed inside us. In our minds. It was the idea that he might actually be out there, in the woods (not on the net), that made it scary.
First of all, the film presents us with a convoluted ritual which must be used to ‘summon’ Slender Man. This was never part of the lore (that I knew of, admittedly the mythology was pretty vast), and in my opinion, it weakens the plot. Slenderman was scary because he could get you anywhere, at any time.
He didn’t need to be summoned. He was already there.
Slender Man presents the monster as being a sort of digital Candyman. He lives on the internet. He’s from there. He only comes to the real world when he’s ‘summoned’.
Our heroines watch a spooky online video (yes, dear reader, it is exactly like The Ring), and the Slender Man starts stalking them. They start to have bad dreams, which is admittedly where the movie shows off its best, creepiest imagery.
They also start to see the Slender Man, which…leaves a lot to be desired.
There is such a thing as taking a design too literally. It is clear that, when designing this film’s visuals, the graphic artists looked at drawings of Slenderman. But their Slender Man looks like a sad, digital rendering of the most basic of those drawings.
I always found that one of the scariest things about Slenderman was that no one could quite nail-down what he looked like. Every drawing was a little different.
But in this film, when he’s not too shrouded in darkness to see, Slender Man looks like a CGI suit on a store mannequin with big, rubber hands. They also chose to add the ill-advised ‘back tentacles’ (an unfortunate result of the ‘Slender’ craze), which look clunky and too-thick to be useful.
And then, to top it all off, I kid you not…Slender Man walks on big, clunky spider legs. Like Pennywise.
It is decidedly not scary.
So now, let’s talk about what Slender Man did right, and how they could have made it better.
There is a good movie hiding somewhere in Slender Man. The four main characters, particularly our secondary protagonist Wren (played by Joey King), are legitimately well-acted and likable.
Sure, they’re a discount ‘Losers Club’, but I’ll give them a pass nonetheless.
This movie does its best work early, when Slender Man is still just an idea, and not a literal monster. He appears in the abstract. In nightmares, in sounds from the forest, as a shadow on the wall. We still have no direct confirmation that he is real. We just know our protagonists are afraid of him.
One of my favorite sequences comes right near the middle of the film, when two of the principle characters search the room of a missing girl for clues. What they find are drawings, dozens of drawings, showing different iterations of Slender Man.
The creepiest of them shows a tree, with a long spider-hand coming down from a seemingly normal branch, holding a girl’s hand.
The more real Slender Man we get, the more the movie falls apart.
The real Slender Man ends up being a generic poltergeist who drags screaming children into the woods with living tree branches and CGI tentacles. There is no strange, hypnotic charm. No mind-control. No “Pied Piper” aesthetic.
The Slender Man just takes you, and kills you. That’s it.
And that’s not Slenderman.
One of the most common themes of Slenderman lore was that kids wanted to go with him. He didn’t take you, you went willingly. And how terrifying is that? The idea that you would go purposefully into the woods at the whim of a tall, faceless specter; off to god knew where?
The fact that this film didn’t take advantage of an element as bluntly terrifying as that is criminal.
I won’t lie, I truly believe that the people behind Slender Man were trying to make a good film. It never felt to me like a simple, dumb cash-grab. It had a lot of elements that I genuinely liked, or at least appreciated.
But I think, as adults so often do, the creators of Slender Man misunderstood what was so damn scary about the thing in the first place.
When you turn Slenderman into a sort of generic ‘boogeyman’, a jump-scare engine that pulls kids screaming into the woods, you lose a lot of what made him scary in the first place. This movie would have been better served showing a lot less of its title character, and leaving a lot more to the imagination.
Slenderman lives in the imagination, you see. He’s not online, or in the woods. He’s inside you. In your head. In your friends’ heads. He is every too-tall shadow. Every branch that looks vaguely like a hand. Every weird, hollow sound in the night.
Slenderman isn’t any one thing.
He is exactly what you want him to be.
(RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars)