Mercy Black is not a funny movie. In fact, the new horror flick from Owen Egerton doesn't even have much in the way of comic relief, and although actress Janeane Garofalo is best known for comedies like Wet Hot American Summer, she doesn't tell a single joke here. It's a moody, fatalistic spin on the Slender Man mythos, but it feels very appropriate that Netflix surprise-released it on the eve of April Fool's Day, because the joke's on us.
Mercy Black tells the story of Marina (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom's Daniella Pineda), a young woman who spent the past 15 years in psychiatric care because she and a friend stabbed one of their classmates when they were children. It's overtly based on the 2014 Slender Man stabbing, a real incident where two young girls stabbed a friend 19 times, ostensibly to impress the internet boogeyman the Slender Man, but really because of mental health issues.
HBO has a documentary about the Slender Man stabbings that strips away most of the creepypasta trappings to reveal just how upsetting and depressing the entire incident was, but Mercy Black used the real crime as a launchpad to tepidly explore the concepts of truth, belief, and telegraphed jump-scares (if the recent Slender Man movie drew criticism for capitalizing on a tragedy, Mercy Black should probably get some of the same ire).
As Marina attempts to readjust to normal life, staying at with her sister Alice (Elle LaMont) in a dimly lit house, she finds that the urban legend of Mercy Black — a Blair Witch-esque figure with great power and bloodlust — has spread while she was getting treatment (under the care of Garofalo's Dr. Ward). Marina wants to put the past behind her, but her sister's boyfriend Will (Austin Amelio) wants to use Marina for info on this hot true crime story, while her nephew Bryce (Miles Emmons) starts to believe in Mercy Black.
For most of its runtime, Mercy Black is a pretty unremarkable horror movie, content to slowly dole out the plot via flashbacks and a handful of mildly effective scares. It's nothing that most fans haven't seen before... until the last 20 minutes. After an hour of lamely prodding at the question of whether Mercy Black is a real supernatural force or something imagined by some impressionable young teens, the film piles up a succession of twists that change everything that came before them. These twists don't quite hold up if you think about them for too long, but they're inspired in a way that the rest of Mercy Black isn't.
Mercy Black is fine, an eminently watchable and forgettable horror movie that has a couple of good ideas. That's perhaps the film's greatest twist, though. Because Netflix surprise-released Mercy Black, it feels different from the dozens of other original titles that the streaming service unloads onto its library practically every day. Most Netflix originals get a steady stream of trailers and press releases to build-up the hype. Mercy Black was a surprise, which makes it special.
That's the trick, though. Mercy Black is decidedly not special — it's an average-at-best horror movie. Surprise releases add an element of unexpected excitement to a release, but not everything can be Beyonce's self-titled album. That 2013 record is a masterpiece, and it's been influential enough that it's warped people's expectations for what an unheralded release means.
Normally, when a movie isn't screened for critics (or if the review embargo is right before the premiere), that's a sign that the studio knows it has a real stinker on its hands. For most of pop-culture history, a lack of promotion was an indicator that the movie, show, or album wasn't all that good. Mercy Black isn't bad, but perhaps there's a reason why Blumhouse, the powerhouse horror studio behind it, didn't release it in theaters? Maybe there's a reason why Netflix didn't spend any money promoting Mercy Black before its release?
This likely won't be the last time Netflix surprise-releases a movie or show. It's certainly not the first time, as the streamer famously debuted The Cloverfield Paradox during the 2018 Super Bowl. Based on the reviews, though, the surprise release was the most memorable part of The Cloverfield Paradox. That might be the case with Mercy Black, too. It's a fine but forgettable horror flick, one that likely would've been even easier to overlook if it didn't have the mystique of a surprise release buoying the narrative.
In that way, Mercy Black is a pretty good April Fool's joke, even if it came out a day early. By getting everyone's attention with the surprise release, Netflix is essentially saying "Ha! Made you look," and then there's a jump scare.