Directed by Owen Egerton
You hear the story about two teenagers who took their friend into the woods, and then stabbed her several times as part of a blood ritual to please a supernatural entity? No, I’m not talking about a real-life crime – though I forgive you for thinking that I am. The infamous case, involving two girls in Wisconsin was already the subject of the 2016 documentary Beware The Slenderman, along with the lacklustre 2018 movie. Here it’s the barely disguised inspiration for a folk horror so similar it crosses the line of bad taste. Then backs up, squats and proudly shits on it, right up until its impressively tasteless ending. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though.
Rather than the Slenderman, the monster in this movie is a less sharply dressed woman, with a paper mache face. She was created by best friends Marina and Rebecca as a guardian angel to help them save the life of the former’s mom in exchange for a blood sacrifice that comes in the form of Lily. Fifteen years later, after finally leaving a psychiatric ward, Marina (Pineda) returns to the small town she grew up in, where moves back into the old family home to stay with her sister Alice (LaMont). There’s no getting away from her past though. In her absence, Marina’s become a bit of a local celebrity to true crime addicts like her sister’s sort of partner Will (Amelio). Her nephew Bryce (Emmons) also starts acting up and asking more and more questions about Mercy Black, who has since taken on a life of her own. Alice would rather try to pretend it away – like how she lies to him that daddy’s working for NASA and his aunty just came back from art school in England. Leaving it to Marina to reconnect with her past and finally banish the monster/ meme she made.
It’s perhaps fitting that I initially confused this film with the sci-fi show Orphan Black since for much of its running time it feels like a clone. We have kids singing nursery rhymes, a mysterious hand grabbing Marina’s hair while she baths and a catatonic former victim coming to life when it’ll most make the audience jump. It’s frustrating to see a real-life tragedy misused so much. I’ve criticised the film for being exploitative, though this isn’t because it uses something real as the basis for its plot. Rather it’s because it uses something real as the basis for such a shallow, and ultimately mundane, movie. Were Mercy Black a deeper look at alienation, belonging, how myths spread or kids manufacturing their own authority figure in the absence of their parents then I’d be ok with it. Really, I’d rather the backing story had been the focal point – or at least the timeline were split more evenly. Instead of it providing a motivation for the same old narrative of a person visiting a place something bad happened to face their demons (both metaphorical and literal). As alluded to above, the third act – in which character motivation be damned – is also far crasser than the subject matter warrants.
What little context we get feels entirely functional. For instance, we don’t get to know Marina’s pain, that caused her to conjure up her tormentor in the first place, beyond pipeline dialogue peppered here and there. Making it’s hard to see the emotional significance of Mercy Black then or now. Granted, there’s an opportunity to give her an origin of sorts by us seeing Bryce getting seduced by the same spectre. However, Egerton undermines any parallels by treating him as a typical creepy kid from the moment he first grabs Marina’s ankle – during the obligatory game of hide and seek. Since he has a habit of showing up in unexpected places and saying scary things in a calm voice before anything happens then the corruption of childhood angle gets lost. In that respect, I think even the most family-focused audience members will struggle to give a hoot what happens to him. Marina’s own liability for bringing the world “a whole new nightmare” also goes underexplored, which is irritating as it’s the cool part of an old concept. As is the now global nature of Mercy Black, since she went viral, of which we see very little evidence besides from a few newspaper clippings on a crazy wall.
And yet despite all the bad things I’ve just said about it I didn’t hate, or even particularly dislike this film. Much of that comes down to Edgerton’s staging rather than his innovation. I wouldn’t want him to design my metaphorical table, but I’d trust him to build it. He’s a skilled craftsman, who knows the rhythms of a good setpiece. Even if they aren’t the freshest, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited at points. Some of the scare scenes are pretty effective, with one where a character thinks they’re alone in the house being the stand-out. On that, Edgerton also has a decent sense of location. The run-down country house is as good a backdrop as we could want, and adds massively to the atmosphere. Its distance from everywhere else, mostly glimpsed as distant lights, emphasises the characters’ vulnerability and Edgerton has an eye for jump out locations in an everyday setting. It helps that the acting is commendable, with Daniella Pineda having the charisma and expressiveness needed to be a convincing leading lady. Elsewhere, comedian Janeane Garofalo is excellent in her, admittedly brief, role as her psychiatrist. Her absence is maybe a good metaphor for the movie’s wider problems regarding thematic and character depth. Still, given its themes, an interesting irony to this film is we can be reasonably sure it won’t be the last to have a more than passing resemblance to the Slenderman’s rich mythology. Hence this likely won’t be the last word. A possibility which makes it even less likely that if someone asks you the same question I did at the start of this write-up years from now, you’ll be thinking of this movie.
Mercy Black is available now on VOD and Netflix.