‘Beware The Slenderman’ Review: HBO’s True Crime Doc Feels Formulaic And Flimsy [SXSW 2016]

‘Beware The Slenderman’ Review: HBO’s True Crime Doc Feels Formulaic And Flimsy [SXSW 2016]
‘Beware The Slenderman’ Review: HBO’s True Crime Doc Feels Formulaic And Flimsy [SXSW 2016] ‘Beware The Slenderman’

Eavesdropping as the crowd came out of Beware the Slenderman, HBO’s latest true crime documentary, I heard the same thing being muttered: Beware the Slenderman is too long, by half. It’s true, too, especially with so many moments of resounding crescendos set against sweeping, pastoral porn shots of Mother Nature, each one a great backdrop to roll credits against. Visually there were outs, but Beware the Slenderman never takes them.

Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky (The Final Inch, Hear and Now), Beware the Slenderman runs the audience through all the true-crime tropes you’d expect. Even when the audience is emotionally exhausted and ready to revel in the salacious details of how two girls stabbed their friend 19 times and left her to die in the woods, Beware the Slenderman insists on filling time with saccharine emotion instead.

Which is where the true issue with the film lies: It’s technically proficient but misguided. If you’ve never watched a true-crime documentary before, Beware the Slenderman will enthrall. But it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, except a cute Skype scene (think Serial’s Mailchimp advertisement) consisting of the first five seconds of their interviewees connecting to a call.

Beware the Slenderman isn’t as bad as Making A Murderer about putting its subject on a pedestal of innocence. The beginning of the film starts off with weepy parents and baby footage of the two suspects, but Brodsky balances this humanizing with small little slips of evil from the girls, like Anissa’s YouTube profile.

Here’s a girl who enjoys videos of hamsters eating raspberries, and also mice being murdered in a bathtub. It’s weird, sure, and in hindsight it feels sick, but liking cute videos on the internet doesn’t make you a good person. Watching the not-so-cute ones doesn’t make you a bad person either.

Brodsky keeps playing the two girls against each other, showcasing their childhood innocence vs. the ickiness of the way they describe what they did, until the audience is left not knowing what to believe. Are they evil, or just misguided? What led them astray? Why is there creepy, hypnotic music and strobe-like flashing each time Slenderman appears on the screen?

This is intentional. The second half of the film is concerned with blaming mental illness — Morgan has been diagnosed schizophrenic, like her father — and Internet meme culture — see Anissa’s YouTube scene above — for causing the girls to plan out and premeditate a murder.

To this end, Brodsky included footage of an expert explaining how schizophrenia isn’t usually dangerous, but it can be, and in this case was the reason the stabbing happened. This was followed up by another expert who described Internet culture as a place where vulnerable, bullied kids find viruses of the mind that can infect them, the implication being it was only a matter of time.

It’s not particularly worth refuting, because Brodsky is right in a sense, there doesn't seem to be any other reasons out there. But, her conclusion is rooted in Beware the Slenderman being a true-crime documentary. The very nature of Brodsky’s task to turn the girls into empathic creatures, so we can be shocked as an audience at the heinousness of their crimes, meant that Beware the Slenderman had to find a reason, an external motivation, that pushed the girls toward the act.

While all this is going on, interviews with experts are dropped in alongside scenes filmed over months-long intervals: we see the girls shackled in court, witnesses on the stand saying shocking things, editing choices that make a detective look like an asshole, and the girls’ families continuing to have a very tough time dealing with all this.

If the film has a redeeming quality, it is Brodsky's access to the girls’ parents. You can almost hear Brodsky squealing silently inside herself behind the camera as both fathers separately cry on screen, pre-arranged close-ups capturing tears rolling down their cheeks.

The film’s unspoken, persuasive argument is simple: The girls should be tried in the juvenile court system. The judge presiding over their case had denied the girls’ motions to do so, saying it would “unduly depreciate the seriousness of the offense,” but recently allowed the case to be delayed as the girls’ lawyers sought an appeal.

Beware the Slenderman is not a bad film. It is a good true-crime documentary: but that's not necessarily a compliment, either. It is almost formulaic in its goodness, and my issues stem more with true-crime as a rote genre than anything else. There’s just something inherently unsettling about entertainment created with the intention of whipping up publicity, gore porn made palatable with a long emotional build-up.

‘Beware The Slenderman’ Review: HBO’s True Crime Doc Feels Formulaic And Flimsy [SXSW 2016]
‘Beware The Slenderman’ Review: HBO’s True Crime Doc Feels Formulaic And Flimsy [SXSW 2016] Photo: ‘Beware The Slenderman'
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