In the summer of 2014, sixth-graders Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier lured their friend, Payton Leutner, into the woods and stabbed her nineteen times. When they were arrested, they claimed they committed the act in an attempt to become proxies, or servants, of the Slenderman, a fictional demonic entity with its roots in Internet forums and fan fiction. The story dominated the news for weeks, and for many the incident raised questions of the impact that the Internet can have on children. It is from this story that the new documentary from Irene Taylor Brodsky (“The Final Inch”), “Beware the Slenderman,” femerges, using its terrifying base story to explore both the events of the “Slender Man Stabbing” and the effect of loneliness on young people.
From its opening scenes, the strengths of “Beware the Slenderman” become apparent. Its story is as consistently engrossing as any true-crime tale, and in many ways, it recalls “Making a Murderer” and fellow HBO documentary “The Jinx.” Its story is inherently interesting and horrifying, and Brodsky does well in threading the initial police interviews with the girls through the film to produce a constantly eerie atmosphere. The girls’ description of the events leading up to the stabbing, as well as the stabbing itself, provide some of the most chilling material of the feature.
It also becomes immediately clear what the pitfalls of the project are. Both of the aforementioned documentaries were series. They had an episodic format that assisted in expositing every aspect of their stories. “Beware the Slenderman” has to get the same amount of information across, but it only has a two-hour runtime to do so. It is trying to tell so many stories at once that something always inevitably gets lost, causing a disjoint, especially in the first act. Here, much of the crime is explained, but the lack of info on the titular monster which would take the brunt of the blame in the media, leaves this part feeling unfinished. Without motivation, it is hard to completely understand the story Brodsky is trying to tell.
After the loads of exposition that bog down the first act, the second portion dives into both the lore of the Slender Man and the themes of the documentary. One of the variety of experts interviewed states that the Internet “can serve as a peer or peer group” to those with few friends of their own, and that the Slender Man itself gains his followers through their own loneliness. It is the picture of this isolation that “Beware the Slenderman” paints that begins to tie the thing together, as it draws parallels from the allure of the Internet, and Slender Man in particular, to the solitude of Weier and Geyser’s personal lives. It never seeks to make excuses for their actions, but it does seek to explain them, and in this, it succeeds.
In the same way, Brodsky seeks the origins of the Slender Man and explores the role of the Internet in creating web-based horror stories, or “creepypasta,” like the story of the creature. She draws a line from “Slender” to the Internet culture of memes to the classic folk lore of the Pied Piper, and makes it clear that while the Internet provided a breeding ground for these ideas to multiply at a faster rate, the concept has been around for centuries. In the end, in the film’s most chilling segment, it is revealed that Weier and Geyser have themselves become a part of the Slender Man legend.