Friday, February 3, 2017

Beware the Slenderman (2016

Beware the Slenderman (2016): Documentary directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky: In the end, sometimes less is more with documentaries. In the case of Beware the Slenderman, less style and more substance would have made for a better documentary. It's still a pretty fascinating film, though. 

Beware the Slenderman deals with the 2014 attempted murder of one 12-year-old girl by two other 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Both of the attempted murderers seem to have come from loving homes and also seemed to have no prior history of violence prior to their premeditated stabbing attack on a friend. Over the course of police interviews and psychological examinations, the two girls' obsession with the manufactured Internet urban legend of 'Slenderman' became a key component to understanding the attack.

The interviews (including some Skype comments from Richard Dawkins on the nature of memes) are mostly informative and/or sympathetic. There are no interviews with the girls, though we do see and hear them in police interviews and in phone calls to their parents. 

It's interesting to see how a fictional urban legend created for a site devoted to creating fictional urban legends holds such sway over the girls. But it's also fascinating to observe how what was originally a figure of horror has been transmuted by various writers and artists and consumers on the Internet into a much more complex figure. 

The girls claimed that murdering their friend would give them access to the Slenderman's mansion, located in a nearby forest. Similar fantasies of salvation by the Slenderman (or 'Slender,' as the girls repeatedly, familiarly call him during their police interviews) appear in stories and threads and message boards. He's been domesticated, though it seems primarily by people who long to escape their mostly friendless, tortured childhoods, as the girls seemed to want to do.

The documentary does spend far too much time on various animated representations of Slenderman, provenance unknown. Some are probably from the Internet and others created especially for the film, but the film-makers don't bother telling us this in the body of the film. It's frustrating, especially as there are a couple of areas that need more exposition.

One such area is the origin of Slenderman himself, as a fictional story on the Creepypasta Wiki. What is Creepypasta? Well, the film just barely explains that, and it doesn't explain the origin of the name 'Creepypasta.' I'm guessing that leaves some people completely befuddled. What the hell does pasta have to do with fictional urban legends? The Creepypasta site isn't 'fake news': it's a collaborative fictional project that's already yielded at least one SyFy Channel miniseries (and a damned good one): Channel Zero - Candle Cove started life as a fictional message board thread about a vaguely remembered children's show.

The second such area is Wisconsin law -- specifically, the question of how it is that the Waukesha police were able to conduct hours of interviews with two 12-year-old girls who would subsequently be charged with attempted first-degree murder, all without parents or lawyers present. One police officer briefly mentions that lawyers and parents "weren't allowed" in the interviews. What? As the girls were subsequently charged and sent to trial as adults facing up to 65 years in jail based almost entirely on these interviews, I'm left going... what? What the Hell is going on in Wisconsin?

One missed connection is that between the Slenderman case and a 1954 murder case in New Zealand in which two teen-aged girls conspired to kill one girl's mother. That case, involving Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, was made into Heavenly Creatures, a much-praised 1994 film directed by Peter Jackson.

The film also pulls one narrative trick that would work well in a fictional film but seems awfully artificial in a documentary, this by withholding one key bit of family history for one of the girls until it can be sprung late in the movie. This is just too much narrative tomfoolery, too much artificiality. 

And as I don't believe that non-fiction films can be 'spoiled,' here it is: the father of one of the girls is a diagnosed schizophrenic. This information, and the information that that girl had herself exhibited increasing signs of dementia as early as three, really needed to be laid out early. Overall, though, this is a fascinating examination of many things -- perhaps most notably a truly wonky legal system. Recommended.

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