By: Steph Cannon
It’s not often that the meaning behind the title of a movie is immediately evident, but SLAPFACE does so within the first few frames. The scene is jarring to say the least, as we witness Lucas (August Maturo) and his older brother, Tom (Mike Manning), engaging in just that - taking turns slapping each other across the cheek. It’s a game that has meaning between them, and despite how uncomfortable it may seem (both for them and the audience), the importance is revealed as the movie progresses.
Written and Directed by Jeremiah Kipp, and based originally on his short film of the same name, Slapface moves quickly from that opening scene and shifts into the meat of the story. Having lost both of their parents, Lucas and Tom have only each other to rely on while living in an isolated home in the middle of the woods. It’s very evident that Tom is not equipped to handle taking care of a minor, let alone stepping into any kind of father figure role, the result of which is an abrasive, cold attitude towards his younger sibling.
Lucas is struggling in many ways: the grieving process of losing both parents, being an outcast amongst his peers, and the dysfunction of his home life. His only solace is escaping into the woods to explore his surroundings, but even that is fraught with problems. He’s continually bullied by a group of girls who gang up on him, threaten him, and force him to be put into danger.
It’s during one of these situations that Lucas ends up exploring an abandoned building rumored to house a monster of local legend: a witch who supposedly eats children and terrorizes the woods. He indeed encounters the witch, who grabs him, and sends him into a panic. When he awakens later, outside of the house, dazed and bewildered, he’s accompanied by one of the bullying girls, Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) and we get a sense that she has a much more caring heart than the other two.
Not much is explained about how he got there or what happened in between, but aside from his initial fright, Lucas appears to not have been harmed in any way. Maybe it’s his natural curiosity, or maybe it’s a desperate attempt to get attention from anyone or anything, but Lucas quickly returns for a repeat visit to the monster.
The witch is mostly seen shrouded in shadows throughout the entire film, with brief glimpses of her goblin-like features. She’s adorned in burlap-like clothing that covers her almost completely, with the most visible feature being her gnarled hands. An unlikely, strange bond ends up forming between the two, with the monster taking on a protective, motherly role towards Lucas. While this gives off the feeling of a dark fairy tale, she is still a monster, and that role manifests in horrific, sinister ways.
Lucas is faced with the startling realization that his strange, new friend might not be as harmless as he once thought. As this is being unveiled, we get more insight into the other relationships in Lucas’ life, sparse as they may be. A budding romance develops between him and Moriah, as the two realize they both are being treated unfairly by the duo of bullies they spend their time with.
There’s also a deeper, more meaningful level to his sibling relationship with Tom. Despite his abrasiveness, and the abusive tactics he throws his brother’s way, there are moments of tenderness that show, in some small way, he really does care for Lucas. This provides some levity during the more horrific moments, and shows that Tom is someone who is just in way over his head.
SLAPFACE is a film that doesn’t waste any time lingering too long on a scene, which is both an advantage and a detriment to the story. There are times when the subtlety of an abridged scene helps add to the tone of the movie, while at others, it feels as though it's an unneeded component to the overall arc. Additionally, there are several supporting characters whose roles feel too forced, or worse, not necessary at all.
Overall, the crux of the story is one that is bleak and slightly contrived, with an out of control ending that leaves one with a feeling of hopelessness. At its core, however, Slapface carries with it a heavy message about abuse, grief, and bullying, and the repercussions from all of those when they are unfortunately combined.
SLAPFACE will be available on Shudder starting February 3, 2022.