Character-driven horror is becoming an increasingly tough nut for filmmakers to crack in the age of instant gratification, with jump scares and mountains of gore often taking precedence at the expense of a satisfying narrative worth investing in.
It’s especially true nowadays in the streaming era, when at-home audiences won’t hesitate to distract themselves with other devices should the events unfolding on the screen fail to hold their gaze, drawing at least one of their eyes to a cellphone or tablet. Fortunately, writer and director Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface is a triumph of economical and atmospheric storytelling, one that demands your undivided attention from first to last.
Following in the accomplished footsteps of Mama, The Babadook, Lights Out, and others, Kipp adapts his own 2017 short into a feature film, and it’s fully deserving of the extended running time. The bare bones of the plot don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s the inventive approach and repeated underlying gut-punches that elevate Slapface into a haunting, powerfully-acted meditation on life, love, loss, grief, and of course, monsters that are both figurative and literal.
August Maturo’s Lucas has become increasingly withdrawn following the death of his mother, with Mike Manning’s older brother Tom now the child’s sole guardian. The only thing the youngster has that even remotely approaches a human connection comes from the trio of bullies who put him down at every turn, so he naturally ends up befriending the Virago Witch by forming an unsettling (yet strangely affecting) relationship with the fearsome creature that dwells in a rundown abandoned building in the woods.
Thanks to impressive prosthetic makeup, guttural sound design, and the movements of performer Lukas Hassel, the Virago Witch is an instantly memorable addition to the pantheon of things that go bump in the night. Except, a great deal of Slapface unfolds during daylight hours, which instantly helps set it apart from the vast majority of spiritual contemporaries revolving around grotesque beasts with a lust for blood that skulk exclusively in the shadows.
To further Kipp’s unique approach, there’s a refreshing absence of “lore” or “mythology” to pad out the screenplay through exposition, and the movie doesn’t even need it to not just succeed, but thrive. Plenty of horrors spend way too much time painstakingly explaining the who, what, when, where, and why of their erstwhile antagonists, but Slapface simply tells us that something evil lives just outside the boundary of human civilization, with the respective performances of Maturo and Hassel doing more than any leaden exchanges of dialogue ever could, made all the more impressive by the fact the Virago Witch remains silent throughout.
Sure, the existence of the fabled beast is never overtly or explicitly acknowledged by the majority of the other characters, but based on the trail of death and destruction inadvertently caused by Lucas’ new best buddy, it’s never really up for debate as to whether or not the supernatural goings-on are unfolding in his head. Or is it? Furthering that notion, while ambiguity can often be a boon to thought-provoking tales of terror, Slapface lives and dies by the strength of its thematic center above all else, to the extent that it functions perfectly fine as an introspective, emotionally-charged family drama, albeit one that features a nightmarish ghoul with a predilection for the macabre.
At its heart, then, Slapface is much less of a monster movie, and more a shattering examination on the dangers of isolation and abuse, both mental and physical. Even the title comes from the twisted game Lucas and Tom play in order to get their heads straight, presenting the unbreakable familial bond between the siblings as one that literally derives its strength from them hitting each other.
Maturo and Manning are undeniably phenomenal, with the former comfortably holding his own as the focal point, while offering a heartbreaking portrayal of someone so young dealing with loneliness, neglect, and abandonment. Meanwhile, Tom can’t help but rely on excessive drinking to cope with his own issues, which stems from him trying to do his best to act as a surrogate parent. It’s a role he knows he’s woefully ill-equipped to carry out, but he can’t bear the thought of losing the only person he’s got left, a feeling that becomes increasingly mutual when Libe Barer’s Anna begins spending more and more time in his company.
Make no mistake about it, though; Slapface can often be an unrelentingly bleak watch, with little in the way of levity or optimism to be found. That’s admittedly par for the course when we’re talking about a piece that finds a tormented teenager surrounded by largely unlikable people inadvertently unleashing a murderous witch as his guardian angel, but that means there isn’t really anyone to root for or side with outside of Lucas and maybe Tom, although your mileage may vary on the latter by design.
The Virago Witch might be a literal being, but it’s also an obvious metaphor for how Lucas feels about his own circumstances. He wants to escape, be left alone, and have his brother to himself so they can rebuild their lives, and a hook-nosed, rag-wearing entity coincidentally arrives at exactly the right time to give him what he desires, but not in the way he imagined. His motivations may grow increasingly conflicted, but he technically brings everything on himself, although even that development is painted in subtle shades of gray.
The positives greatly outweigh the negatives in the end, and the deliberately subversive stylings of Slapface continue right up until the credits roll. All signs are seemingly pointing in the direction of the Vigaro Witch unleashing true fury in a misguided attempt to give Lucas what she believes he wants, but the final scene is altogether more troubling, heartbreaking, and shattering. It can often be dauntingly heavy stuff, but it’s a superbly-crafted ride well worth strapping yourself in for.
'Slapface' can often be a relentlessly bleak experience, but the thematic resonance and surprisingly effective character dynamics comfortably offset any minor flaws.