August 7, 2016

Beware the Slenderman (2016)

In May 2014, two 12 year-old girls led one of their friends out into the woods near Waukesha, Wisconsin, and attempted to murder her. When questioned by police they claimed they did it to please the Slenderman - a fictional horror character created on the Internet to simulate an urban myth. The criminal case is still ongoing at the time of writing, yet the murder attempt is now the subject of a new documentary from Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Irene Taylor Brodsky (The Final Inch).

It is an immediately arresting subject for a film, since it is not only extremely horrifying but it sits at a nexus point between impressionable youth, school bullying, debates over media consumption, and how urban myths develop and operate.

Sadly, while Brodsky has selected a potent and quite disturbing subject matter, her documentary is only partially successful. Beware the Slenderman is a deeply flawed film: it is too long and repetitive, its focus and structure are a little messy, and it egregiously fails to cover all required angles of its story. The end result is a documentary that was certainly watchable, but not actually good enough to recommend to others.

So what, precisely, are the problems? The first one is actually really simple: the case is ongoing. The two young women who perpetrated the crime are both still in custody, and are to be tried as adults some time later this year. We do not know the end of their story. We do not know if an appeal to have them tried as juveniles will succeed. The result for this documentary is that Brodsky has a beginning and a middle, but no satisfactory end. Quite simply it is too early for this documentary to be released.

The second problem is one of focus. Early scenes heavily insinuate that extended access to the Internet was to blame for the two girls getting inspired to attempt murder. Later in the film Brodsky drops a bombshell that one of the girls suffers from schizophrenia. While these later scenes work extensively to avoid stigmatising or ridiculing the girl's mental illness, it leaves the accusation that the Internet was to blame hanging in the air - if it was not the primary factor, why act for so long that it was? It gives the documentary a slightly tabloid edge - something not helped by the numerous amateur Slenderman videos presented throughout the film as periodic montages.

The film makes a reasonable effort to contextualise the Slenderman phenomenon - its creation, how it developed and propagated, and its deeper cultural origins - but at the same time there's a feeling that an awful lot of material has been left on the table. Instead the film keeps returning to police video recordings of the girls' original interviews: clearly the film's trump card in terms of exclusive footage, but over-used to the point that the film becomes needlessly circular and repetitive. It is also considerably too long.

One final and to my mind significant problem is that the victim in the case is rendered almost completely invisible. The film spends much of its second half focusing on the two perpetrators, particularly the mental health of one of them, but barely references their victim at all - another 12 year old girl, who was stabbed with a five-inch kitchen knife 19 times and miraculously survived. It is very possible that neither she nor her parents wished to participate in the documentary, but in that case the documentary should let the audience know that this is the case. As it stands the film comes across as inadvertently insensitive to the point of callousness.

Great material sits inside Beware the Slenderman, but it simply fails to pull together into a satisfying film. It's a pity, because the potential is on the screen but remains frustratingly out of reach. Perhaps once the criminal case concludes Brodsky can return to what she has produced here and find a more definitive version of the story.

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