In the world of horror, Slender Man is no foreign figure. Since making his first appearance on a Something Awful forum back in 2009, the modern-day urban legend has been the subject of numerous photo edits, Creepypasta stories, YouTube channels and even a real-life murder attempt. Yup, you heard right. The scariest part about all these fictional nightmares is that two twelve-year-old girls lured a classmate into the woods and stabbed her 19 times after reading a Creepypasta story. The girl ended up surviving thanks to a passing cyclist, but one has to comprehend the power behind Slender Man’s mythology to truly understand why this faceless, business-suit-wearing abomination is now a spokesman for all that’s evil.
A YouTube channel titled Marble Hornets was the first to deliver recurring video footage of a figure known as The Operator, who co-creator Troy Wagner admits is inspired by the Slender Man legend. The videos have amassed a massive fanbase and over 80,600,000 collective views to date on the critically-acclaimed channel, and thanks to the continued worship of Slender Man’s chilling grasp, director James Moran was called in to adapt a feature film based on the channel’s exploits.
Penned by Ian Shorr, Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story has very little to do with Marble Hornets except for the existence of The Operator. The mythology aligns with everything you’ve come to understand about Slender Man, and this off-shooting tale revolves around a news cameraman named Milo (Chris Marquette). After being called in to do a piece on house foreclosures with reporter Sarah (Alexandra Breckenridge) and their boss, Charlie (Jake McDorman), the three begin to investigate a family’s sudden disappearance. This is where Milo spots The Operator, lurking in the background of the family’s home videos – and then his own recorded coverage. Confirming his darkest fears, Milo realizes that whatever caused the family to vanish is now stalking him, and rushes to find a way to escape the same fate.
Many horror fans might be excited to hear that serial caricature Doug Jones appears as The Operator, but withhold those fanboy shrieks until you actually see (err, kind of) Jones in full Slender – ugh, I mean Operator garb. In what can be described as a suited-up version of Charlie’s Green Man from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Jones’ casting choices is a rather curious one. The man has played such unforgettable monsters from Hellboy‘s Abe Sapien to Legion‘s Scary Ice Cream Man, yet without knowing about Jones’ inclusion, you’d never be able to tell. The Operator’s actions mainly revolve around stalking, lurking, pointing, and watching from afar – nothing that requires frenzied movement or defining characteristics. Sorry to disappoint, but Always Watching slaps on Doug Jones’ name just for recognition.
The unexpected presence of Slender Man is what drives the legend’s bone-chilling capabilities, but by making The Operator only a mere manipulator (no attacking), tension begins to deflate at a slow but steady pace. He can only be seen on camera, which causes Milo to construct elaborate security systems that use projectors and go-pros, so what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Shaky cam! Exactly!
Always Watching doesn’t skimp on frantic camera movements and plenty of exhaustive running, typically kicked off by The Operator’s appearance in the background. Whether his shadowy figure can be seen standing behind a thin curtain or peering around a tall tree in broad daylight, Jones’ job is simply to lurk – almost like a digital version of It Follows that possesses you instead of crushes your bones. But this decision removes some of the danger, because even when The Operator appears in the same room as Milo or the others, we know he won’t be doing any maiming himself. As long as no one appears possessed, there’s nothing to worry about.
Then again, Moran does find some moments worth a spike in blood pressure when The Operator becomes a bit more aggressive. We’re never surprised by the film’s antagonist thanks to funky technical glitches that distort the screen whenever the beast/man/thing approaches, but his jumpy distance-hopping makes for some unique chase sequences. In one instance, Milo catches a glimpse of The Operator standing amidst some shrubberies in his backyard, far in the distance. Then the camera goes on the fritz for a second, and The Operator is now standing half as close. As Milo turns to bolt inside, the camera glitches again and we just see The Operator jump only a few feet behind Milo. In broad daylight. That rapid-fire jolt of horror, at its simplest, is what Always Watching strives consistently to achieve – but it just doesn’t always accomplish such a feat.
It’s not that the trio of central actors embody particularly bland characters – Chris Marquette’s transformation into a paranoid lunatic holds strong enough – but Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story just can’t sustain a lurching sense of dread over the course of a feature film. Slender Man is a haunting, maniacal presence whose sole existence is to mentally torture victims before ensuring a physically violent finale, yet The Operator never becomes that fear-striking puppeteer. The Operator is a symbol of destructive unrest, and while some viewers might be thrown by his brooding, constant attachment to victims, to others he’ll just be a faceless man standing around with a fancy suit – like a half-finished Jack Skellington. Unfortunately, the paranoia and fear just don’t translate into anything more than Slender Man fan-fiction.
The Operator might always be watching, but in an unfortunate turn of events, his deadly presence isn't felt in the horrific way that the legend describes.