Review: Netflix's 'Mercy Black' Exploits A Real-Life Horror For Cheap Scares
Blumhouse has found a new way to thrill horror fans, and that’s by surprise dropping new titles straight to Netflix. Mercy Black hit the streaming service on March 31, the same day as its acquisition was announced. But while this title is brand-spanking new, its story is not. And I don’t mean in the “oh this old cliche” way. I mean Mercy Black snatched inspiration from an infamous murder case, which makes its third act absolutely grotesque. (And not in the fun horror movie way!)
Written and directed by Blood Fest’s Owen Egerton, Mercy Black begins with the tale of three little girls and one dark day in the woods. Two will gang up on the third, attacking her, stabbing her, and leaving her for dead. Once caught, they explain to authorities she was a sacrifice made to appease an eerie imaginary friend. In the movie, she is called Mercy Black. In real life, we’re talking about Slender Man and the true crime that was carried out in his name.
In 2016, Beware The Slenderman was a documentary that broke down the modern folklore’s internet origins while exploring the “Slender Man stabbing.” Here’s my brief summary of the crime from my SXSW review of the doc:
On Saturday, May 31, 2014, three twelve-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin went to the local park. It was the morning after a birthday slumber party, where they’d stayed up late giggling and girl talking. But in the woods, [redacted] was attacked, stabbed 19 times with a kitchen knife and left for dead. Her attackers were her friends, [redacted]. When they were captured hours later, the girls told the police killing [the girl] was “necessary.” They told them they did it for Slenderman.
In Mercy Black, a point-by-point re-enactment of the crime is its story’s jumping off point. Most of the film takes place 15 years later when stabber Marina Hess (Daniella Pineda) is finally released from an asylum. Now, she believes that Mercy Black was an elaborate hallucination resulting from an undiagnosed mental illness. But when she returns to her family’s home and strange things begin to happen, Marina fears Mercy Black is not only real but also haunting her young nephew Bryce (Miles Emmons).
Like Blood Fest, Egerton’s follow-up is studded with horror cliches. There’s a child who is creepily calm as he speaks about the sinister spirit he claims speaks from his walls. There’s the requisite scene where a naked woman is threatened by pernicious paranormal activity while trying to enjoy a bath. There’s the catatonic who will predictably spring to action for a jump scare. Actually, It’s all pretty predictable, down to the film’s final, cringe-worthy twist.
SPOILERS below for Mercy Black’s third act.
Is Mercy Black real or is Marina hallucinating? Is her nephew being possessed by an evil spirit? Or does he suffer from the same condition that his aunt did 15 years before? After a mix of sinister spectacle, sloppy slaughter scenes, and lots of talk about the legend of Mercy Black the answer is another horror cliche: there’s someone in the walls!
It turns out the helpful librarian, Lily (Lee Eddy)—who accidentally introduced young Bryce to the wealth of online stories and fan art of Mercy Black—was sneaking into Marina’s house on the sly to whisper spooky nothings to the boy while attacking anyone who got too close. And why? Because SHE was the girl left for dead in the opening scene. It’s predictable because in a movie with very few characters, we’re spending a noticeable amount of time with a self-professed knowledge junkie, who strangely doesn’t know anything about Mercy Black despite living in a very small town defined by her legend. But the predictability of this twist isn’t why I cringe. It’s because, in real life, the attacked girl in the Slenderman stabbing also lived.
Today, she’d be about 17. She’s spent her teen years recovering not only from the physical wounds inflicted on her but also the emotional and psychological wounds of being assaulted and left for dead by two girls she considered friends. Her name is easily searchable, which means any casual acquaintance could unearth the graphic details of this traumatic time. She’s dealing with all that on top of all the other overwhelming stresses of being a teen girl. And now there’s Mercy Black, a movie that not only gleefully re-enacts the attack against her for your viewing pleasure, but also makes her onscreen double into a monster.
In Mercy Black, the librarian isn’t just corrupting a child and killing people out of a sense of vengeance. She wanted to be the sacrifice. The movie takes victim-blaming to a crass new level where the victim is not only proudly complicit in the crime committed against her, but also is used as a tool to urge us to sympathize with her attackers! We’re bound to Marina, whose pain is the focus of the story. Her journey also gives justification to why she and her fellow would-be killer Rebecca called on Mercy Black. One was trying to save her dying mother, the other trying to escape her abusive father. On top of this, the movie takes great pains to declare Marina didn’t even want to stab Lily! But she was asking for it!
If you didn’t know about the Slenderman stabbing, Mercy Black might just play as a modestly satisfying horror movie. Sure, it’s full of tropes with no sense of innovation or subversion. Sure, it casts Janeane Garofalo, then gives her absolutely nothing to do. Sure, its featured creature looks like Slenderman and a scarecrow’s mutilated love child. But hey, there’s some gore, and some jump scares, chases, and a twist or two, twisted if not predictable. If I didn’t immediately recognize this movie’s real-life inspirations, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with any form of review. Mercy Black is 80% been-there-done-that, which makes it the kind of horror movie I like to throw on while I’m cleaning the house or cross-stitching. But knowing what I know, I instead watched in horror. And not the horror of vicarious thrills and fears for which I come to this genre again and again. It’s horror at the filmmaker’s very gall. A child’s story of surviving a vicious attempt on her life is exploited by Egerton for such the stupid and soulless spectacle that is Mercy Black.
Header Image Source: Netflix