FANTASIA 2016: Capone looks at two great docs--BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN and CREATURE DESIGNERS!!!
Published at: July 19, 2016, 3:20 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone still in Montreal covering a few days in the life of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Today I’m focusing on two very different documentaries I saw here—one about an act of senseless violence that has far-reaching repercussions and another that celebrates one of the most creative art forms in movie making. So let’s dive in…
BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN
The two-year-old case of the “Slenderman” stabbing in Waukesha, Wisconsin (just a few miles due west of Milwaukee) is a tragedy from every angle, as is hopelessly proven by the new documentary BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN, from director Irene Taylor Brodsky. Some less in the know about the facts of the case think this is simply a tale of the evils that come from kids spending too much time on the internet; others think it’s about one evil child luring another one astray (not unlike the case that inspired Peter Jackson’s BEAUTIFUL CREATURES). But neither of those scenarios quite capture what went on in a desolate corner of the woods where two 12-year-old girls attempted to murder their good friend.
The 2014 case drew national attention because it appeared to be a clear-cut case of internet mythology crossing into and inspiring events in the real world. The stories about the Slenderman have populated the internet for several years, with people telling tales and even blurry, black-and-white images of a tall, faceless man in a suit with long arms and sometimes emitting tentacles from his back. The tales of Slenderman populate websites filled with scary stories, aimed mostly at teenagers with the goal of scaring them at night. But Slenderman’s stories of plucking up children were viewed by some as the tale of a dark guardian angel, protecting outcast kids who are bullied by peers or abused by their parents. So to some, Slender is their only friend, making them easy targets for the mythology to become reality.
BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN is unique and captivating for several reason, and it leaves few stones unturned in attempting to explain how an obvious internet hoax (the Slenderman character was created by a guy entering a 2009 Photoshop contest to believably place an object in an old photo where it clearly didn’t belong) grew into a character with its own backstory and folklore, inspiring a wealth of images, fan art, fiction writing, and a small cult of “proxies,” who seem to think that if they don’t carry about Slender’s murderous way that he’ll kill their entire family. At no point is there any indication that someone trolling the web is pretending to be Slenderman; these kids are coming up with these ideas on their own, fueled by a runaway imagination and perhaps mental illness, as we discover.
After the stabbing, the perpetrators, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, were found by police attempting to walk to Nicolet National Forest, where they believed Slenderman’s mansion was located. Their victim, whose birthday sleepover they had just attended together, managed to get out of the woods enough to be found by a passerby, and she’s still suffering the psychological effects of the event (the filmmaker wisely has almost no footage of her in the film either). But what we do have an incredible amount of access to are the initial interviews of the two suspects by police right after they were picked up. They are relatively calm, a little shaken up, moderately regretful, but also somewhat relieved because they believed they had carried out their mission successfully and, as a result, their families would be safe. Director Brodsky occasionally just lets the footage of these interviews run unbroken, and its mesmerizing to see the thought process of these girls as they calmly justify their actions. You’d think explaining the Slenderman to an outsider would somehow snap them out of their self-induced delusion, but such is not the case.
Brodsky also features a great deal of moving interviews with the parents of both the girls involved in the crime (again, we get no footage with the victim or her family, which does impact the film to a degree). One mother paints a portrait of the most ordinary, unassuming daughter you can imagine, and she’s clearly still in shock at the way things turned so quickly. The other girl’s father is more bordering on a free-floating anger, partly at the internet and the girl’s iPad, partly at himself for not seeing signs that were simply not there, and at the courts for even considering charging the girls as adults. We are given access to the hearings of the two girls, as the judge must decide to charge them as juveniles or adults. There’s a great deal of testimony by psychiatrists who detail a variety of mental illness possibilities that one or both girls might suffer from.
The filmmakers also talk to experts in myth-making on the internet and throughout history. One such interview reveals the connections between the Slenderman story and some tellings of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Two key things about the film should be noted: it will be premiering on HBO in the fall, and many aspects about the case against these two girls are still very much up in the air, which begs the question why did the filmmaker decide to release this movie now, unless she’s contemplating an ongoing, multi-film series (much like the PARADISE LOST series, also from HBO), which is an intriguing notion in this age of “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” tackling crimes of the past. Here’s a captivating case with certain ramifications about a criminal’s age, the internet, and a horror-film-like folk villain at the center. What if we got a new film every year or two with updates and more expert testimony?
BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN is a thoroughly researched, often painful examination of a crime that took the innocence and certain future away from three young lives, and while the film certainly doesn’t point the finger at social media, I don’t see how any parent that watches this could not become extra cautious about how much time their kids spend on the internet and what they’re watching. The movie works across many levels, and I’m curious to see where this case and director Brodsky’s work goes from here.
CREATURE DESIGNERS: THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX
As a movie geek whose gateway drug was horror film from all eras, there are few things I find more enjoyable than listening to stories told by the people who create monsters, either as miniatures from stop-frame animation, or full-size practical masks and suits, or animatronic creatures with cables and wires coming out that control dozens of movements. As someone who loves finding out how things are made and operated, CREATURE DESIGNERS is a documentary that reveals a great deal about not just how things are built and how many failed attempts often have to happen before a final, functioning version is completed, but also how the designers’ minds work in creating a character that has as much expression and emotional capability as any human performer.
Dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, the movie leaves few stones unturned in the history of monster making, from Lon Chaney’s self-taught work on his own face to Harryhausen’s early KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and later SINBAD and CLASH OF THE TITANS offerings, to the’80s heroes like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Phil Tippett, Stan Winston, Steve Johnson, the fellows at KNB, and so many more who were the rock stars of the movie industry for a time before CGI made so many of their jobs seem antiquated and slow. Directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis, Kevin Smith, Mick Garris sing the praises of these artists, and show examples of some of their best-known work in their movies.
The most shocking thing about CREATURE DESIGNERS is showing how many elements of certain films were practical and not CGI, including a great deal of the dinosaur work on JURASSIC PARK, the angel-like aliens in THE ABYSS (not the water tentacle, however, which was groundbreaking in its own right), many of the bugs in STARSHIP TROOPERS, and even the gelatinous T-1000 in TERMINATOR 2. As one designer explains the latter, anytime you see the T-1000 damaged or blown apart, that’s puppetry; when it’s repairing itself, that’s CGI. For those of you that still watch DVD extras for your favorite sci-fi and horror films, you may recognize a great deal of the behind-the-scenes footage shown here, but there is also a great deal of personal home/work movies showing the trial and error that went into inventing new techniques.
The name dropping of key films is fantastic here, from the film that seems like everyone’s ground-zero, FRANKENSTEIN (and Jack Pierce’s wonderfully simple makeup work on B to JAWS to the playground that was the STAR WARS movies (the Cantina scene was epic for so many monster makers). Other key films that are detailed include THE EXORCIST, PLANET OF THE APES (all the versions), THE FLY, many of ALIEN films. LEGEND, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE HOWLING, GREMLINS, CRITTERS, the first two ROBOCOP films, pretty much all of Del Toro’s film (particularly the HELLBOY movies), KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, and the groundbreaking work that Bottin did for THE THING, which broke down the idea that creatures had to have some human form. The doc is a wealth of pure craftsmanship and magic on display.
While the film doesn’t get as much into horror movie makeup like you might see in a zombie movie or slasher film, it does allow the popularization of CGI to enter into the equation, especially when it comes to performance capture work in THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, more recent KONG films, and AVATAR. But it also calls out CG efforts that simply didn’t work, most heartbreakingly on the prequel to THE THING, for which so much hand-crafted practical work was created, only to be replaced almost entirely by CG in post-production by an impatient and nervous studio.
I was especially happy to see that the film’s running time actually allowed French journalists-turned-documentarians Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet (RAY HARRYHAUSEN: SPECIAL EFFECTS TITAN) to expand on some of the psychological aspects and ideas about creating monsters. Del Toro, in particular, has a great many thoughts on what makes a monster scary vs. what makes us feel something for a creature. But it’s just as wonderful to see old masters like Landis and Dante sitting together, trading stories about one of them stealing Rick Baker’s transforming werewolf technology from the other.
The stories and insight are tremendous, the chronicling of the rise and fall of practical effects is moving, and there’s even a ray of hope about the future for these artists as many filmmakers and creature designers seem to like the idea of CG enhancing—not replacing—practical work. Look at what J.J. Abrams did in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS for proof of that. CREATURE DESIGNERS is partly a nostalgia trip, but it’s also a rallying cry for today’s filmmakers to remember, respect, and appreciate the craftsmanship of this era in movie making, and how those skills can be used today. And while I’m sure separate movies could be made about each of the designers features here, it’s nice to see them all together, talking about their common struggles, triumphs, and outright horror stories.