by William J. Hammon, ActuallyPaid.com
Some of the best horror movies out there are the ones that are grounded in an essential reality, even within the context of supernatural monsters, gory viscera, and over-the-top special effects. If the terror is analogous to something that can be experienced or felt internally by the audience, it goes a long way towards forging a connection that stays with the viewer long after they’ve left the blood and guts behind.
Such is the case with Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface, now available on Shudder, a feature length adaptation of his 2017 short film of the same name. On its surface, the movie works as a thriller where a largely unseen specter cuts a swath through a remote woodland community, but it succeeds well beyond that as a meditation on trauma, abuse, and misplaced vengeance.
The impressive cast is led by August Maturo, best known for his role on Girl Meets World, but who has horror experience from working on The Nun. He plays an adolescent named Lucas, who is raised by his brother, Tom (producer Mike Manning) in the woods near Fishkill, New York (north of New York City, along the Hudson River) after the death of their parents in a car accident. The film opens on the chilling titular ritual, where Lucas and Tom repeatedly slap each other as a form of mutual bonding and venting of their grief. Not only does this set a stark mood for the story to come, but sets up a crucial dynamic, as Lucas visibly breathes heavily during the exercise, showing his pain, while Tom is stone-faced, only reacting enough to demand harder violence from his younger ward.
This is not the only torment that Lucas has to deal with. He’s secretly dating a girl named Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), and wants to join her group of friends who call themselves “The Nightshades.” But the other members are the bully twins Donna and Rose (Biana and Chiara D’Ambrosio) who treat him like a punching bag, and Moriah goes along with it to keep face with her only companions. Lucas acts out fairly often, as happens with someone his age in a broken home, including an obsession with an abandoned house that local legend says was home to a witch called Virago. This leads to a fair number of run-ins with the law for trespassing, particularly with the local sheriff, Thurston (played by veteran character actor Dan Hedaya, best known for his villain roles in 90s films like The Addams Family and Rookie of the Year), who is a friend of the family and is willing to give him some leeway providing that Tom reins him in. Unfortunately, Tom is a very lackadaisical guardian, more concerned with his new girlfriend, Anna (Libe Barer of Sneaky Pete), making Lucas fairly jealous.
In his grief and desperation for any kind of personal connection, Lucas accepts a dare from the Nightshades to go into the creepy house of the witch, where he encounters what he believes to be Virago herself (Lukas Hassel). Tall, imposing, and bathed in shadow, the Monster is never fully seen, with only hints and clever revelatory camera angles to give the audience a relative idea of its appearance and allowing us to fill in the gaps ourselves. Apart from ragged cloaks with various dangling talismans and a prominent hook nose, one is never entirely sure what they’re looking at, only that it’s very dangerous, given that it’s first meeting with Lucas involves grabbing and shaking him wildly.
Despite his fears, Lucas forms an unlikely rapport with the Monster, seeing a good in it as a protector and almost motherly figure to substitute for the one he lost. It becomes an outlet for his insecurities and self-doubt, but also opens a crack for his own darkness to seep through. In a bit of brilliant use of the color palette, the charming blue streak in Moriah’s hair that Lucas once found attractive eventually disappears from her, seemingly transforming into lines of blue flowers on the ground that he uses as a trail to find the Monster, an almost literal primrose path away from from one imperfect supporter towards another. Even better, as the Monster creeps further and further into Lucas’ life and home, the lighting scheme oozes vivid yellows and greens to blur the lines between his perception and reality.
There’s a lot to enjoy about the ensuing carnage, because Kipp shows how dirty this whole process can be. Processing pain and abuse is not a neat and tidy proposition, and we get plenty of great visual examples throughout. A lot of Lucas’ rage, coupled with the Monster’s actions, is misdirected at relative innocents like Anna or Moriah instead of Tom and the Twins as an illustration of the confusion that comes with grief-stricken anger and lashing out. Lucas and Tom’s home falls more and more into disrepair as literal messes are made with each subsequent encounter. Economic use of shaky-cam provides an almost interactive experience of the uncentered nature of Lucas’ coping ability.
It all comes together to give the viewer a cerebral and dark take on the classic line from The Wizard of Oz. “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” There’s initial fun in not knowing the answer when it comes to the Monster. It’s even better when a sustained period of abuse and bullying shifts that question ever more poignantly to our young protagonist. And the most disturbing answer of all is that we never really know, because again, this kind of trauma never wraps itself up in a neat package.
If you’re a fan of horror, particularly psychological thrillers and films that give you something to think about while you’re enjoying the mayhem, this movie is for you. As a pure genre piece, it’s fun. As an exploration of trauma, it’s potentially essential. For a film with a killer that can only communicate via grunts and howls, Slapface has a lot to say.