In “Slender Man,” the title demon is one of those spectral showbiz creeps from another dimension who’s coming to get you. He’s like Freddy Krueger, in that he targets teenagers and spirits them away the moment they let their defenses down. He’s like the force from “Ringu,” in that the trouble all starts when you watch an evil black-and-white digital file full of flickering imagery that looks like “Un Chien Andalou” crossed with a Tool video. He’s like Candy Man, in that he’s a historical ghost with a two-word name ending in “Man,” or Pennywise from “It,” in that he targets a close-knit group of friends, knocking them off one by one.
In this case, though, when you glimpse the character of Slender Man (Javier Botet) in the background of photographs or amateur videos, or even when you see him up close, he remains an oblique phantom: tall and spindly, like Ichabod Crane, in a black suit and parson’s tie, with long arms like tree branches and a blank blob of a face. He’s coming to get you, but who he is remains a mystery. He’s the walking-dead spirit of formula teen horror — the monster who, no matter how many times you kill him, never goes away.
“Slender Man” takes off from a “creepypasta” Internet meme that originated in 2009, and it’s the character’s abstract quality that results in a handful of shivery moments, especially when the four high-school girls who are the film’s main characters call up underground video files in which he lurks like an outlaw with a smudged face. Yet apart from its occasionally spooky images, “Slender Man” is a fundamentally derivative and empty-headed horror film. The more it tries to sketch in the rules of who Slender Man is and what he means and how he operates, the more you realize that the film is just winging it, stitching together old tropes and hoping that they blossom into something coherent.
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The movie, written by David Birke and directed by Sylvain White, lifts a great deal from “Ringu” and its American remake and sequels, notably the merging of paranormal horror and staticky technology — which means, in this case, that Slender Man turns out to be a “bioelectric” force, so that when he shows up we often hear crackling voltage on the soundtrack. He’s also pictured standing in front of bare-limbed trees at night, because he’s like a tree himself, and there’s imagery of twiggy black foliage erupting out of victims’ mouths, mostly because that looks sort of cool. But “Slender Man” is the kind of movie in which images come before logic, because there really isn’t much logic. There’s just a movie out to goose you.
The girls try to protect each other, which means that each abduction into the great dark beyond is also a sacrifice, a way of shielding the next girl. But where do they go when they’re taken? There’s no answer to that other than “away,” and that’s why the film has a murky, vague, grasping-at-straws-of-evil quality. The actresses make their presence felt, especially Joey King as Wren, a soulful waif in a punk choker, and Jaz Sinclair as Chloe, who beams with life until she calls up a video of Slender Man, only to watch in frozen horror as he films himself entering her house and coming up the stairs (which lends one more layer to the film’s borrowings — a whisper of “Halloween”). But like the victims in Freddy’s movies, the characters in “Slender Man” have a way of being tremulously emotional and, in that very desperation, entirely disposable. When they’re taken, it means next to nothing, because they were never anything but the sum of their fears.