Writer-Director Jeremiah Kipp uses horror to accentuate the emotionally devastating life of a young teen in film Slapface. The constant stream of torment that engulfs the excellent August Maturo breaks you a unexpectedly powerful film.
After the death of his mother, Lucas (August Maturo), a loner who lives in a rundown home with his brother Tom (Mike Manning), regularly seeks solace in the nearby woods. With his only “friends” being a group of female bullies, he keeps to himself most of the time. But, after a strange encounter with an inhuman monster, Lucas begins to withdraw from others. When the two reach a tentative trust, a bizarre friendship is born, and Lucas is swept up in a series of primal adventures.
Grief is a hell of a thing to encounter, and you are never really prepared for the pain that it brings, especially when you lose both your parents at a young age. When Tom, now the young guardian for his teenage brother, tries to handle this and look after his brother, he is as unprepared as they come despite all of his best efforts. He doesn’t know how to let out his grief and as such, Slapface is born, a “game” where the brothers slap each other to let out the pain of carrying on without their parents by their side. It is a grim but necessary game to keep them on the right side of sanity, and while that and alcohol may work for Tom, he needs something greater for Lucas.
Tom has the responsibility of caring for Lucas to distract him, but Lucas has no such avenue coupled with his loss and being bullied. He yearns for his mother’s connection, he needs her presence, and after conducting a ritual to try and summon her in some form back into his world, he brings back something else, a witch or monster named Virago. Yet, what he summons may be terrifying, but it holds him, cares for him and protects him. A rare sign of comfort that he hasn’t had in a while, excluding Tom’s new girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer), who appears to be the only maternal person in his life, he is lost.
Bonds are what drive the film, be that the bond with the two brothers when Tom finally realises all is very not well with Lucas and the relationship Lucas has with Virago. He so desperately needs a comforting, protective relationship he so desperately needs, and it is only when Virago starts to become out of control that Lucas realises what Tom has been trying to do all this time since their parents passing. You feel for both brothers; they need help. While alcohol and delusion can only keep the pain away for so long, the understanding that they not only need each other but they need professionals to get through this traumatic period in their lives rises through their clouded grief.
Yet as Virago takes more control of the situation, you realise the chances of a happy ending for all involved are getting slimmer by the second. It is a tragic circumstance to see how Lucas’s mental state crumbles in how it does. Maturo does a fantastic job in showing how broken, and helpless Lucas is as a character, and as events turn in the manner that they do as Slapface moves forward, you can only be impressed by him. Equally, Manning brings his own complexities to Tom that work very well, and it doesn’t help that both actors and all of those in the cast have an excellent chemistry together.
Abuse comes in all forms, though, and while Tom has mistakenly been neglecting his brother’s mental state, all of Lucas’s pain has been compounded by the presence of his two bullies who just out and out hate the poor boy. Yet possibly even worse and more vindictive is Moriah, who is nice to Lucas in private, but as soon as the twins arrive, she becomes a nightmare for him. This emotional torment would rock any young lad, no matter how young, and for him to be pulled back and forth mentally while everything else is going on is too much.
Kipp also brings in the idea of peer pressure with Moriah, is she doing what she does as willingly as we think? Or is it because she is afraid of being next on the list if Lucas isn’t the one to be continually tormented? Again, it brings us back to that theme of bonds and how fractured they are in some form for everyone. Tom needs Anne to keep him as steady as possible, and Lucas, as mentioned, needs Tom to be a parent but turns to Virago when that doesn’t happen. He also needs Moriah to show him there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but due to her own complexities, she is stifled in what she can give him. It is all very complex, and Kipp does a great job of keeping it all together in the manner he does.
Kipp pulls no punches as he shows us the effects of such bullying on someone so mentally fragile as Lucas is here and showcases that through Lucas, is all the more powerful. We see how the continued damage takes a toll on his psyche with each incident, causing Virago to become more enraged, protective and eventually vengeful to those who torment him. Kipp also ensures that the bullying we see is wholly believable, at times physical and mental; nothing is ever over the top or escalated to a silly level. Lucas is being grounded down continually, and we can only guess how long this has been going on. It is smart to pull back on that from the director and show a much more assured hand than you imagine considering the topic presented.
Slapface occasionally stutters a tad due to its transition from a short story to feature-length. However, it can hold itself up to show, like many other horror films over the past few years, that the genre can have that added complexity and balance all the necessary beats very well. While you would love a few more moments of destruction into the film, it doesn’t really need it as what we have is more than enough; anything extra would just be the cherry on top. Kipp has truly enhanced his short film and made an emotional and tragic horror movie.
Slapface is out on Shudder now.
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