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Movie Review: In Contentious “Flay”, The Scares Are Slender, Man

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 | Review


Starring Violett Beane, Elle LaMont, A. Michael Baldwin
Directed by Eric Pham
Written by Matthew Daley
Phame Factory 

After receiving a small boost in public profile when Sony tied up its release in legal entanglements, indie absolutely-not-a-Slender Man pic FLAY has finally landed on streaming platforms, causing one to wonder just why the big studio even bothered. It does make some sense: companies with exclusive rights to a character (even one with origins and copyright rules as fuzzy as this long-legged meme monster) can be hawkish in protecting said character, but if this isn’t a textbook example of the Streisand Effect in action, then you can call me Fanny Brice. Sony would have done better to leave Phame Factory alone and let this amateur-hour-cluster-cuss fritter away beneath mounds of similarly artistically bankrupt titles in the cobwebby corners of the Amazon Prime streaming catalog. 

Directed by Eric Pham (a visual effects artist who cut his teeth on Robert Rodriguez flicks), FLAY presents the totally-not-Slender Man as a Native American spirit…or something? It’s unclear, but, to give credit where credit is due, the setup is intriguing: screenwriter Matthew Daley begins this tale by informing the viewer that tribes were forced to give up their traditional garb for European-style dress or suffer scalping, which sometimes included the removal of the face. According to Daley, even in death, indigenous peoples were buried in suit and tie. Historically accurate or not, there’s a ghost of an idea here that almost verges on interest-piquing.

It’s too bad that Daley flexes his authorial muscles to atrophy so early on, as that’s the most—for woeful lack of a better word—inspired flourish we get. This crassly self-serious History Channel opening never organically connects to the goings-on (was the not-Slender Man once human? Is he a supernatural righter of wrongs? A faceless symbol of the oppressed?) and instead we must suffer through 70-minutes of hoary family drama before the plot decides to show up again.

Elle LaMont stars as Moon (gag) who returns home to bury her estranged mother’s body after it’s discovered by her teenage brother, River (double gag), played by Dalton E. Gray. As Moon attempts to ingratiate herself back into River’s life, she begins having dark visions connected to a mysterious bit of worn chain she found among dear old mom’s personal effects. 

The chain, of course, was once used to restrain Native Americans for the titular flay-ing and caused Moon’s mother to lose her mind before the not-Slender Man took her soul…but why should you care? The film certainly doesn’t. Aside from some gnarly dreams bathed in Apple Photo Booth warping effects and a couple of offscreen deaths, you’d be forgiven for mistaking FLAY for some sort of cut-rate cable drama. For a film that takes its name from what’s literally defined as “to peel the skin off (a corpse or carcass)”, there’s unforgivably little of that. What there is a lot of is adolescent angst (River is, what’s known in common parlance as, a little bitch), jokes about refried beans, casual sexual harassment by police, scenes of disrespect towards driving instructors, scenes of uncomfortable and indistinct ethnic “humor,” scenes of people painting things, and stale romance. So, unless watching women sop up spills sounds like a good time (seriously, why are these ladies so goddamn clumsy?) FLAY might not be your cup of herbal tea.  

One can go on and on about the innocuous blandness and ineptitude of FLAY, but what really sticks in the craw is how it irresponsibly jams the atrocities committed against Native Americans into its hollow narrative. Not only that, it doesn’t even try to engage with it in any meaningful way, leaving the viewer utterly in the dark as to who or what this not-Slender Man is, what its powers are and what its end-game might be. The idea that he’s a symbol of righteous vengeance has some veracity, but Daley and Pham fail to do the necessary mental footwork to make any of this gel. Truly, one could excise the Native American elements completely and leave the story intact while shaving off precious minutes for viewers to spend doing their taxes or scrubbing their toilets instead. As Joe Bob Briggs has been wont to say: “The worst thing a movie can be is boring.” If I may pile on, the second worst thing a movie can be is unwittingly offensive. FLAY is both.

Rocco T. Thompson
Rocco is a Rondo-nominated film journalist and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is an associate producer on In Search of Darkness: Part III, the latest installment in CreatorVC's popular 1980s horror documentary series.