Supposedly, Flay, dropping tomorrow on VOD via Phame Factory, was initially blocked from release by Sony Pictures, because of its vague similarities to Sony’s own film, Slender Man. Well, seeing as how the best part of Flay is its nifty, bloody title intro, I’d say that was a blessing in disguise, because Flay makes Slender Man look like a horror masterpiece…
…Okay, maybe I’m going too far, since most of you probably know that nothing can EVER make Slender Man a masterpiece. But Flay sure does come close. Directed by Eric Pham (who already appears to be working on a sequel called Flay, the Return), and written by Matthew Daley, Flay centers on siblings Moon (Elle LaMont) and River (Dalton E. Gray), who have just lost their mother. Now, they find themselves being stalked by a ghostly Q-tip, aka the Slender Man, who we don’t actually know is the Slender Man, since the thing in the film is never named.
I can look over the fact that Moon and River are never clearly defined, either as two people poorly cast as Native Americans though they look nothing like the part, or two siblings raised by hippies, but what’s difficult to ignore is how terrible these characters are. You only have to look as far as such unnatural dialogue as when River says to cops who are interrogating him, “I don’t know if you can test semen for time of ejaculation,” to see what the problem here is. Lines like that are fine when the film is in on the joke, but that’s not the case with Flay.
The cast themselves range from over-acting to under-acting, leaving moments that are supposed to have an emotional impact feeling counterfeit. Moon and River don’t even seem to much care that their mom is worm food, with River even going to school the day of. Aren’t schools supposed to give kids the day off when a family member dies? The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. River’s girlfriend, Bethany (Violett Beane), spends the entire film either trying to bone River anywhere she can, or make fun of his actually pretty good paintings. As for Moon’s love interest, officer Tyler (Johnny Walter), the guy is written like his aggressive flirting and forcing of Moon into dinner with him is supposed to be charming, but really, he’s just a creep.
Most of us horror fans can get past bad characters. The genre is full of them. What’s tough is when the film is also poorly paced, which is a huge problem with Flay. Outside of the initial mother’s death, Flay spends over forty minutes with the Slender Man popping in and out of frame occasionally, completely unbeknownst to the characters, which is an odd choice, because the film would be more effective if it actually seemed like they were scared. I won’t say nothing happens, because that’s a ridiculous phrase to apply to any film, but even seventy minutes into Flay, there is very little driving the narrative forward. Outside of one shockingly long sequence in which a teacher (Aaron Spivey-Sorells) searches for hormonal teens River and Beth in the school, there just isn’t a lot going on in Flay, with the characters oblivious to anything strange going on until the final minutes.
There is also very little suspense in Flay, to the point where you’ll probably wish the Slender Man really was a giant, walking, talking Q-tip, because then at least there’d be some entertainment value. A big part of the problem is that the audience never has a clue as to what’s going on. The film opens and closes with some black and white moments of the past surrounding Native Americans (by far the most interesting sequences), implying that this spirit has something to do with that and supposed vengeance, but Daley and his script reveal literally NOTHING about what is transpiring. Which can be an effective choice depending on the situation, but in this case, Flay could desperately use some sort of mythology to explain why the Slender Man has any interest in Moon and River, and why Moon somehow has some kind of connection to him where she can touch one of his victims and see visions. But there is none of that, and we’re left wondering what the hell is going on for an entire ninety minutes.
In horror, while the audience doesn’t always need to know the why and how of a supernatural entity, it is important to establish rules, and even in this area, Flay is underdeveloped. We get the impression that the Slender Man appears in spilled liquids, though how that relates to anything I have no clue. It also leads to so many characters spilling things, that I found myself shouting for them to get a damn sippy cup like a goddamn adult. We see Slender Man suck souls, tackle people to the floor, kidnap characters and bring them to dizzy dream worlds, and even perform Pinhead-esque chain-kwon-do, without any rhyme or reason. Flay is gravely lacking a strong mythology behind the villain, leaving the overall plot as thin as the Slender Man himself. I give some credit to the filmmakers though, because a part of me suspects that some changes probably had to be made due to Sony’s lawsuit regarding their own Slender Man film. Whatever the case, Flay is severely lacking in its premise.
Where Pham does flex his strength with the film is in the effects. Pham has had an exceptional career working on major features in the effects department, and it shows with Flay. The Slender Man himself, when on-screen for more than a few seconds (which is rare), has a strong, eerie presence, and there are a few shots throughout that show a keen eye for interesting visuals, such as blood dripping backwards ala the gory demise of Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street. We also get some fun Slender Man-O-Vision, which is really just a red filter over the image, but is still effective. There is some salt with this sugar though, and that’s the fact that all of the kills in Flay are done with a quick flash of CGI soul sucking, only to be finished off-screen, which seems like a waste of an opportunity for a director that specializes in visual effects.
With so little substance and obnoxious characters that will make you grind your teeth, Flay is about as forgettable as the Slender Man’s blank face. However, if you’re having trouble sleeping, I recommend taking one dose of Flay and calling me in the morning.
Flay releases on VOD tomorrow, April 2nd.
By Matt Konopka