Mercy Black

Mercy Black

2019, NR, 88 min. Directed by Owen Egerton. Starring Daniella Pineda, Miles Emmons, Elle LaMont, Lee Eddy, Janeane Garofalo, Austin Amelio.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., March 29, 2019

If you agree that we are living in the golden age for both true crime adaptations and independent horror films, then you might also agree that the universe owes us a better Slender Man adaptation. Given the popularity of this urban legend - and the 2014 Wisconsin stabbings it inspired - it's a bit surprising that no filmmaker has offered a definitive take on the phenomenon. Sadly, Mercy Black is not the film to buck that trend.

It's been 15 years since Marina (Pineda) brutally assaulted a childhood friend to appease Mercy Black, a vengeful spirit she helped mythologize, but now Marina is finally ready to reintegrate with society. Moving in with her sister Alice (LaMont) and her young nephew Bryce (Emmons, one of several talented child actors in the film), Marina dedicates herself to finding a job and putting the past behind her. But when Bryce starts to obsess over the legend of Mercy Black, Marina begins to wonder if the monster really was inside her head the whole time.

There's an inherent risk to horror films that build narratives around mental illness. Treat your characters' conditions with empathy and you can create a powerful allegory for their struggles, but many of these horror films - even ones with the best intentions - end up using these diagnoses as audience misdirection. It would be one thing if Mercy Black took an early turn into the supernatural and never looked back, but the film clearly wants to have it both ways for as long as possible. Marina’s condition does not exist independent of the film’s central mystery.

This back-and-forth also undermines what should be the film’s biggest advantage: a movie monster that is also its own celebrity. On paper, Mercy Black might be a powerful totem of despair, but the more time Mercy Black spends gesturing towards schizophrenia, the less time it spends figuring out how its own character works. We never fully understand if Mercy Black is meant to be regarded differently by children and adults, and for all of Egerton's textual nods to the cult of Slender Man, that particular subplot in this film goes nowhere. Why write your character as an internet icon if you aren’t prepared to tackle the intersection of digital isolation and obsession?

Those satisfied with a few solid jump scares - of the Things-In-a-Mirror or Hands-on-the-Shoulder variety - will likely find just enough in Mercy Black to pass muster. It’s just a shame that a horror movie smart enough to ask all the right questions cannot seem to provide us with many answers.

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Mercy Black, Owen Egerton, Daniella Pineda, Miles Emmons, Elle LaMont, Lee Eddy, Janeane Garofalo, Austin Amelio

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