Writer-director Owen Egerton’s chilling “Mercy Black” is set 15 years after a trio of superstitious, dangerously gullible kids made a dark sacrifice to a forest spirit. The film’s mostly about one grown woman’s lingering regrets over that one dumb adolescent mistake, although Egerton doesn’t let his more serious themes get in the way of scaring the bejesus out of his audience. The result is a movie that’s a much better riff on the “Slender Man” urban legend than the terrible 2018 thriller of the same name.
Daniella Pineda stars as Marina Hess, who’s spent her entire teenage and adult life in an institution after taking part in a blood ritual intended to win the favor of a masked monster, dubbed Mercy Black. Now a psychiatrist (played by Janeane Garofalo) has finally convinced Marina the creature was merely a shared delusion, freeing her to go live with her sister Alice (Elle LaMont) and nephew Bryce (Miles Emmons).
Not long after Marina returns home, she realizes she still faces consequences for the whole Mercy Black debacle. Thanks to the internet, successive generations have become obsessed with the notion of her spindly limbed demon. “You brought the world a whole new nightmare,” enthuses Alice’s true-crime fanatic friend Will (Austin Amelio).
Marina considers revisiting her girlhood obsession with the supernatural, to prove it was all fake and to purge it from Earth once and for all. But the more she investigates her own past, the more she’s haunted by visions of Mercy Black urging her — and worse, her young nephew — to do terrible things.
The whole “beast whose name should not be invoked” horror premise is tried-and-true; and while Egerton doesn’t do anything revolutionary with it, he doesn’t botch it, either. “Mercy Black” has a suitably spooky look, emphasizing all the dark corners where something malevolent may be lurking. It has uniformly strong performances too — especially from the engaging and sympathetic Pineda, and from Lee Eddy as Bryce’s eccentric elementary school teacher.
The movie is nerve-wracking throughout, but especially terrifying in the final 20 minutes, when Marina realizes that even if she debunks the Mercy Black myth, that won’t necessarily keep her or her family safe from all the nuts out there.
That’s one reason these kinds of ghost stories work so well — at least when they’re crafted with the kind of “don’t watch this right before bedtime” mercilessness of “Mercy Black.” These movies suggest that all it takes to loose an unstoppable evil on the world is a little innocent curiosity … or pressing “play” on the wrong video on the internet.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix