Beware the Slenderman **** / *****
Directed by: Irene Taylor Brodsky.
By this point, I assume nearly everyone is at least familiar with the shocking “Slenderman” case – a true crime case that has already become infamous, even though the legal drama is still playing out. In 2014, two 12 year old girls stabbed their friend 19 times, and left her for dead in the forest – as then took off. Luckily, the victim survived her horrific ordeal. The two perpetrators - Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser – were quickly apprehended, and brought in for questioning. They don’t deny what they did, and don’t show any regret for it either – they say they had to do it. Why? Because of Slenderman – who would have killed them and their families if they didn’t kill for him. They were walking to his mansion in Nicolet National Park – where they would be his proxies.
Slenderman is, of course, not real. He is a digital age boogeyman, created in 2009 as part of a Photoshop challenge – who has taken on a life of his own since then. Stories have been passed around, changed, modified, etc. through many websites – there have been tons of artwork, and videos, showing Slenderman – mainly viewed as a kind of Pied Piper – leading our children away. In some tellings he is a monster –a child killer – and in others, he is more an object of sympathy – a bullied kid, who has grown up to become a protector of children. He is tall and thin – faceless, with tentacles coming out of his back. Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary, Beware the Slenderman, examines both the true crime case that made Slenderman infamous – and the internet phenomenon itself.
This is one of the most chilling true crime documentaries I have seen (and I’ve seen a lot). The videos of the girls interrogations are so chilling because they seem emotionless – especially Geyser – who didn’t know the victim, and doesn’t even seem to fully understand why she had to do what she did. It is Weier who seems to know more about Slenderman – and tells it all to her interrogator. It was her who knew the victim – they had been friends (the victim was perhaps Weier’s only friend – until she found Geyser) – and while she got Geyser to do the actual stabbing, there’s no doubt that she encouraged all along – right up until the point she tells Geyser to “Go ballistic, go crazy” – and she does.
It’s also chilling to see all the internet artwork that Slenderman has inspired over the years – some of it seems like fairly standard stuff, some of it is downright ingenious, and creepy as hell – professional level special effects and Photoshop work being done. Through interviews with various experts – psychologists, folk-lore experts, Slenderman experts, etc. – she examines how the phenomenon grew, and how it consumed the girls, until it became their whole world. In order for something like this to happen, almost a perfect storm needed to be there – had the girls had more friends, it probably wouldn’t have happened, because they would have had outside influences. But the two, along with the internet, made a tight knit group – all of which reinforced their ideas, and led them down the path they go down.
The film also has interviews with the girls’ parents (the victim, and her family either declined to participate, or weren’t asked). Geyser has a schizophrenic father – and since her arrest, has been diagnosed with a childhood version of the disease, which may explain her lack of emotion. Both sets of parents seem like they were involved and caring – and although warning signs were missed (especially in the case of Geyser – who had artwork that should have raised major alarm bells) – you understand how parents don’t want to see their kids that way, and don’t think their 12 year daughter could possibly do anything that bad. The legal battle depicted in the film is whether or not to charge the girls as adults – which would mean they could go to jail for upwards of 65 years – or children, which means they’d be out at 18. Honestly, neither feels like justice – although I think this is a case where justice may not be possible. These were clearly two mixed up children – who didn’t fully understand what they were doing. And yet, at this point, they should understand it – and they still don’t seem to feel remorse. They need help, but what kind?
I have a feeling that Beware the Slenderman would be an even better documentary had it been made a little later- the legal drama is still playing out, so we don’t have the full story yet, and I don’t know when we will. Honestly, the movie feels padded at times – perhaps too many experts – all interviewed via Skype (and interesting, appropriate decision considering the online nature of Slenderman – but still a distraction at times). I also think there is perhaps a few too many instances of Weier’s parents (especially her father) try and convince the audience that he tried his best, and I’m not sure how I feel about the way Taylor Brodsky’s reveals Geyser’s mental illness – and that of her father’s (which comes fairly late in the film) – or introduces the warning signs for her that were missed. That felt a little cheap to me – a way to spring something on the audiences that wasn’t justified.
Still, I think Beware the Slenderman is mainly a fine doc – an interesting look not only at an infamous case, but on the internet phenomenon that inspired it. We’re only going to see more incidents like this in the future – which makes the film even more chilling.