Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Producer: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Sophie Harris
Stars: Angie Geyser, Matt Geyser, Bill Weier, Kristi Weier, Brad Kim, Richard Dawkins, Jack Zipes, Tom Haynes
Experts and family members discuss the stabbing of a 12-year-old girl by two friends inspired to kill for an imaginary boogeyman.
When a mythological monster motivates murder in a movie, it’s entertainment. When it happens in real life, horror comes from the heartbreak of seeing a foundation for fiction become a weapon wielded by misguided minds.
On May 30th of 2014, Morgan Geyser hosted a sleepover for her longtime best friend Payton “Bella” Leutner and her newer friend Anissa Weier. The three girls went roller-skating, played on their computers, crashed in the same bed, and launched granola at the ceiling like any other twelve-year-old might when looking for harmless slumber party fun. The next day, Morgan and Anissa walked Bella into the woods outside Waukesha, Wisconsin and stabbed her 19 times.
What devil made them do it? Supposedly Slenderman, the infamous internet boogeyman, who broke the bonds of fantasy and telepathically told Morgan to kill in his name or else her family would suffer. Through a tragic tornado of impressionable imaginations, adolescent insecurities, and probable mental illness, two otherwise outwardly average preteens convinced themselves that if they appeased Slenderman’s dangerous desires, they would be whisked away to his woodland mansion and remade as his proxies. Instead, Morgan and Anissa went to jail.
Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary “Beware the Slenderman” is less detailed on the particulars of this crime and more focused on exploring the modern meme culture that may have motivated it. While the film covers 18 months worth of the now notorious “Slender Man stabbing,” it still falls into the trap of being a “too soon” documentary. With Morgan and Anissa’s trial having not even started, the story is far from finished. That leaves “Beware the Slenderman” asking a lot of questions for which there just aren’t any answers.
For all that the film packs into its lengthy runtime, disappointment comes from what isn’t included. Morgan and Anissa’s appearances are limited to police interrogation videos dated to 2014 and courtroom cameras prohibited from featuring their faces. All four of their parents give interviews, but absent is anyone representing the victim’s family. Brodsky undoubtedly made every effort to include all perspectives and pursue fresher footage, but restricted access and limited participation unavoidably makes for a documentary that is not as completely compelling as it could be.
Instead, the movie leans heavily on numerous Ph.D.s throwing out theories about 24/7 technology and closed social circles fostering stunted emotional growth for the girls. Multiple “maybe this, maybe that” ideas present the internet as a boogeyman of its own, an overwhelming morass capable of corrupting youth like a virus.
The academics’ messages don’t come across as fully formed, much less corroborated by empirical data, leaving them to flounder as half-explored possibilities reading like inessential filler. It isn’t until Morgan and Anissa’s parents, as anxious as anyone for a handle on what happened and how, share intimate background on their daughters that insight becomes meaningful.
It’s easy to watch a newscast or read blurbs about the case and jump to immediate assumptions about delusional girls concocting excuses, awful parenting, or whatever other usual suspects make convenient finger-pointing targets in order to make sense of something senseless. Of course, finding fault in such a matter is never simple. No matter the preconceived notion of who or what is to blame, “Beware the Slenderman” offers a takeaway of compassionate understanding that this tragic story has no evil villains, only unfortunate victims.
Using hindsight to search for missed warning signs, Angie Geyser remembers her daughter watching “Bambi” with more concern for the young deer escaping than care about his mother dying. Having read Stephen King herself at that age, Angie simply assumed Morgan was into the same scary stuff likely to intrigue anyone fascinated by fantasy fiction before age fourteen.
Anissa’s mother paints an equally depressing portrait of a parent caught by unpreparedness for conditioning kids born into a social media age where information and influence bombard constantly from every angle. Kristi Weier recalls her daughter using the iPad as a way to avoid traditional interpersonal socialization. With regard to a suggestion of suppressing Anissa’s childlike interest in all things imaginary, Kristi understandably responds, “who is in a hurry to see their child grow up?”
As Morgan’s mother expresses, these were girls living lives in their heads that the families did not know about. Watching Morgan put her hands in police-issued socks while rocking back and forth during questioning, it becomes clear that confusion is king in this girl’s mind.
Morgan recounts that the last thing Bella said to her was, “I trusted you” followed by, “I hate you.” Only partially realizing what she had done, Morgan pleaded out loud, “Slender, if you’re listening, please help us.” She then humbly remarks to the detective that “he didn’t do anything,” as though she legitimately expected a fictional character to rescue her.
The casualness with which the girls recount the attack shows that they don’t grasp the gravity of their actions or the consequences to come. “Beware the Slenderman” instills a sympathetic sadness for everyone involved on all sides of the tragedy through this style of sentimental coverage. It just doesn’t come with the satisfaction of walking away with something more substantial than inflamed emotion.
Exhausting at two hours despite an inherent inability to be exhaustive on the topic, it is difficult to appreciate “Beware the Slenderman” for being the limited movie it is when its aura of incompleteness brings to mind the movie you wish it were. Perhaps the plan is to follow the “Paradise Lost” route of multiple movies across multiple years. As the only full-length feature in the interim, “Beware the Slenderman” functions as a feet-wetter even though it is missing much of the material desperately desired to paint a complete portrait of the case.
It’s one thing for a documentary to pique interest in a subject, which “Beware the Slenderman” definitely does. It’s another thing to satiate that same interest, which “Beware the Slenderman” regrettably does not.
*For more details on the case, read the exceptional 2015 article “Slender Man Is Watching” by Lisa Miller for New York Magazine. LINK
Review Score: 65