Alright, so Slenderman isn't a good movie. This shouldn't be surprising, given the shoddy track record of past August horror releases. But, sadly, Slenderman isn't even really capable of delivering some good jolts either, which is surprising given the eminently creepy title character. How director Sylvain White manages to make Slenderman boring is beyond me, but he does, and even the immensely talented Javier Botet can't save this mess.
I'm a little disappointed at this because there were a surprising amount of bright spots in the film. First, Slenderman is almost entirely female-oriented. Except for a few random "High School" guys that serve as half-assed love interests, the movie smashes the Bechdel Test, banishing the male characters to the peripheral, and focusing instead on the relationships of the young female protagonists at the center of the tale. This shouldn't be important in 2018, but the number of horror films that feature almost exclusively female characters is few and far between, making Slenderman a surprising leap forward for the industry.
Second, there are some legitimately interesting set pieces and camera work. In one of the only truly tense moments in the film, the three remaining protagonists kneel in a dark, creepy forest with blindfolds on, listening to the approach of Slenderman. Between the tight camera work, the impressive acting, and creepy sound design, the moment works exceedingly well. There are other moments too that hint at a more aspirational intent on the director's behalf: Odd camera angles, lingering emotional shots, extended B-roll sequences that play like calls back to the video in The Ring. These things don't add up to a good movie, but they hint that far more thought went into Slenderman's making than the lackluster final product.
Perhaps the most impressive part, though, is that the dialogue and acting is actually really well-done. Shitty dialogue and even shittier acting is usually the hallmark of bad horror movies, but Slenderman manages to completely 180 the trend. The characters are fleshed out, believable and sympathetic, and the attention to the small conflicts between the main characters means the movie is most enjoyable when the leads aren't being frightened and chased. This is, of course, a cardinal sin for any horror movie. It's almost as though White wanted to make a completely different movie and then begrudgingly threw in a monster and some jump scares to make the studio happy. It's a shame, too, because the first third of the movie is strangely engrossing, as the parents and children try to cope with the sudden disappearance of a friend on a school trip.
In the end, though, good acting and dialogue, a decent enough narrative, and avant garde theatrics can't make up for poor character design and an unwillingness to meet the needs of a horror audience. There are precious few legit scares, and when they do come they are usually undercut by poor timing or bad CGI. This is the third horror film White has made, and the fifth thriller; surely he knows how to build tension in a scene. Yet Slenderman is limp throughout almost all of its runtime, and when the titular monster finally does show itself, the CGI is terrible and the creature lacks the scene-stealing horror required of a monster movie.
On paper, Slenderman probably seemed like the perfect monster for a potential horror franchise. He's creepy, immensely popular, and is actually at the heart of real crime story. Yet, when the creature is finally revealed in all its black-suited glory, it becomes painfully obvious that Slenderman isn't ready for prime time. Slenderman is a creature that is only scary in the peripheral, on the edges of scenes, in the background of old-timey images. When you shine the light on him, he is revealed to be nothing but an empty face in an empty suit. Perhaps the studio realized this too late to salvage the film, but in the final product it's clear they completely misunderstand the core of Slenderman's potency. It's not the creature itself, but the effect it has on people.
Slenderman isn't the real monster; the monster is inside of us, and the makers of Slenderman would have done well to realize that. They had the actors and the writers capable of telling the Slenderman movie we deserved, but they went with cliche plot devices and played out jump scares. In the end, perhaps Slenderman is an appropriate title for this disappointing movie. Like the creature, Slenderman is an empty vessel, best left in the background.