When Sony Pictures announced that a movie based on Slender Man—a piece of Internet folklore circulated online around 2009—people were worried it was a shameless attempt to capitalize on the recent attempted murder trial in which two 12-year-old girls stabbed a classmate to impress the fictional creature. The film is already banned in Wisconsin, where the crime took place, and was deemed “distasteful” by the father of one of the girls involved. While there’s no arguing that the existence of Slender Man is tasteless, the final product is also harmless: a boring horror movie about a fleeting internet phenomenon that its intended audience has largely forgotten about.
Slender Man’s problems begin with the fact that for a movie largely about a horror villain born online, the four high school besties who lead the story are hilariously internet illiterate. It’s hard to believe they would crowd around a laptop during a slumber party to summon a nearly decade-old evil meme through a viral video (which a group of teenage boys later incomprehensibly admit to have “chickened out” on watching) and then immediately, earnestly, think he’s coming for them without an ounce of respectable teenaged cynicism.
From there, the girls are plagued by visions of Slender Man, who appears to them so computer-generated and dull that you may as well be watching Microsoft Word’s dreaded pop-up assistant Clippy emerging from the dark woods. If there’s any parallel to be drawn to the trial here, it’s that Slender Man infects his victims with bad thoughts “like a virus,” and so girls begin to disappear into the woods or see Slender Man choking them only to realize it’s their own hands around their neck. But aside from a frenzied performance from Joey King (The Conjuring) as the gradually Slender Man-obsessed Wren, the rest of the cast give sluggish performances, particularly the movie’s drab final girl Hallie (The Affair’s Julia Goldani Telles) who consistently reflects on Slender Man with the energy of someone picking out which toothpaste to buy.
As the core group begins to disappear or go mad due to Slender Man-based circumstances, Wren and Hallie try to fight back with a set of specific rituals conveniently described to them by a stranger online who claims to know how to kill him. But it’s hard to feel anything for characters so paper-thin, including Slender Man, who despite gaining a more expanded backstory beyond, you know, being disturbingly tall, is still opaque in his motives.
The internet is an overflowing well of throwaway spooky fictional stories. There are the “creepypastas” where creative people like Eric Knudsen made Slender Man, decidedly fake Reddit threads about weird stairs that lead to nowhere in national parks, and questionable reportage of creepy dream men. But just like the MySpace bulletins that demanded you repost them lest you be greeted in the night by some dead young girl ready to murder you, these scary stories have a cultural expiration date, meant to be consumed on the internet and the internet alone. Slender Man may have been briefly chilling within the confines of a few badly doctored photos, but in this new movie, to borrow the words of another meme, he doesn’t have the range.