Wednesday, January 25, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky. (Unrated, 115 mins)

Hobbled by leaden pacing and an unfocused narrative, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN isn't exactly the second coming of PARADISE LOST as far as documentaries about arrested teens and moral panics go. Irene Taylor Brodsky's film looks at the circumstances surrounding the attempted murder of 12-year-old Payton "Bella" Leutner, a Waukesha, WI girl who was lured into the woods on May 31, 2014 by two friends--Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, also 12 at the time--and stabbed 19 times. The reason? Morgan and Anissa wanted to impress the Slenderman, a fictional supernatural figure in a suit, with long arms and no face. The character was created in 2009 for a paranormal Photoshop contest on the Something Awful forum, which led to a viral explosion of Slenderman photos, YouTube videos, and fan fiction. Morgan and Anissa discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta Wiki and became obsessed with the idea of becoming "proxies," or servants, to him. Morgan eventually convinced Anissa that killing Bella would sufficiently appease the Slenderman, enabling them to live in his so-called "Slender Mansion," which they believed to be located in the middle of Nicolet National Park in northern Wisconsin.

The fact that the girls attempted to walk from Waukesha to Nicolet National Park after leaving the crime scene--it's a 320-mile trip--is as good a tip-off as any to show how disconnected they were from reality. Through interviews with parents, police, psychologists, teachers, and footage from the girls' interrogations (Morgan and Anissa were not interviewed for the film, nor was Bella, who miraculously survived the attack), we're given background information on the accused. Anissa was a loner who had a hard time making friends, and bonded with Morgan over their mutual interest in Slenderman. Lonely Anissa tells her fourth grade teacher "You're like a second father to me," and the teacher wonders if any of this would've happened if the girls had more friends ("In a group of eight girls, this wouldn't have happened--they wouldn't be talking with just each other and spending all of their time on the Internet"). Both girls come from stable homes with loving parents who can't help but wonder how or why any of this happened or what they should've done differently (Anissa's father says Bella's parents would be completely justified if they hated him). Brodsky withholds a vital piece of information about Morgan, who never showed much in the way of empathy even as a little girl (her mother recalls watching BAMBI with young Morgan years earlier and being shocked that she wasn't even fazed by the death of Bambi's mother, a scene that's traumatized children for over 70 years), until very late in the film and while her reasons for doing so make sense in the context of the audience needing to remain objective, it still plays like a fumbled attempt at a plot twist and something that should've been divulged earlier.

At nearly two hours, BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN eventually becomes a laborious slog. The girls haven't even gone on trial yet (that's happening sometime in 2017) and the courtroom footage seen here is simply to determine if they should be tried as adults or as juveniles. Brodsky and her crew went to Waukesha to chase the story almost immediately after it happened--the first round of parent interviews in the film take place just two months after the stabbing--so there's a lot of repetitive interrogation footage that's sometimes chilling in the girls' shrugging ambivalence (when told Bella is fighting for her life, a presumably shell-shocked Anissa's only concern is "How far did I walk before I got picked up?") but eventually grows tiresome. There's some eerie recreations of Slenderman imagery and a history lesson in folklore (talking heads label Slenderman a mythical figure along the lines of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Pied Piper) and how Slenderman varies from person to person to be whatever the person telling the tale needs it to be, whether it's a malevolent evil or a guardian angel of sorts for troubled children. Brodsky also examines the power of the viral meme, with mentions of planking and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and Richard Dawkins briefly drops by to helpfully define the word "meme." All of this is very informative, but the story jumps all over the place, and by the time Brodsky spends several minutes of screen time with the camera planted on a monitor as we go through Morgan's and Anissa's browser history, it really just feels like she's belaboring the point. The tedious BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN has its moments, but it might've made a better DATELINE or 20/20 segment than a two-hour movie.

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