Written and directed by Jeremiah Kipp
Review by: Mark Walker
A boy deals with the loss of his mother by creating a dangerous relationship with a monster rumored to live in the woods.
Slapface wears its heart on its sleeve.
Or its poster.
The tagline, “Where do Monsters come from?” nicely sums up the premise of the film.
Brothers Lucas (August Maturo) and Tom (Mike Manning) struggle to come to terms with life after surviving the car crash that killed their parents. They both deal with the grief and guilt in different ways. Tom is now the parent, trying to do his best for Lucas while drinking and seemingly indifferent to the world around him and Lucas is going off the rails. In an early scene, Tom collects his brother from the police station after an undisclosed incident which doesn’t sound like it’s the first, and the cops are starting to lose their patience.
There is also the suggestion that their father may have been a violent man and this is reflected in both Tom and Lucas’ behaviour. For Tom it is seen in his relationship with new girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) which quickly dissolves into conflict as she tries to help Tom figure out what is going on with Lucas. For both brothers, the potential violence of the past is also reflected in the titular game that Lucas and Tom play – SLAPFACE. Here, they take turns slapping each other in the face, harder and harder. It plays out as a form of punishment and catharsis as they slap the bad out of themselves. It’s a clear representation of their immaturity in many ways; they are still just kids and struggling to understand the new world around them. It’s a way to resolve their issues without actually confronting them.
Things for Lucas are complicated further through his difficult friendship with local girl, Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) who may or may not be his girlfriend. This is compounded by Moriah’s desire to fit in with Donna and Rose, local twins (played by Bianca and Chiara D’Ambrosio) who also happen to be bullies focussed on Lucas as their target. This drives a wedge between Lucas and Moriah as he tries to win the twins’ favour and Moriah pretends she doesn’t like him when they are around.
Overall, Lucas is having a pretty tough time of it, even before the Virago Witch is thrown into the mix! As part of an “initiation dare,” Lucas is goaded into exploring an old, abandoned building connected to the legends of the Virago Witch who has a reputation for doing nasty things to children. Once inside, Lucas comes face to face with a mysterious and scary figure. Screaming, he runs from the building, but Moriah and the Twins are long gone.
He then wakes up on the forest floor with Moriah, who came back for him, but we have no idea how she found him or how he ended up unconscious (more about that later) but this is the start of a dangerous relationship that Lucas develops with the mysterious woman.
At first things are ‘okay’, Lucas spends time with the woman (the character looks very much like a stereotypical witch) forming an almost mother/child relationship with her. However, the Witch is possessive and when a dog chases Lucas, she protects him in a very violent way.
I will leave the plot there as I don’t want to spoil anything further (most of this is covered early in the film or hinted at in the trailer) but the story plays out as the relationship between Lucas and the Witch becomes more sinister and increasingly violent, leaving a trail of destruction behind that we are not entirely sure was wrought by the Witch or by Lucas.
Slapface is an exploration of trauma, grief and bullying and the psychological effects they have on their victims. Lucas clearly forms a bond with the mysterious Witch as a surrogate for the mother he has lost and her actions and behaviour, while a bit over the top, appear borne out of a perverse kind of love – although maybe more of the “if I can’t have him, no one can” variety. But is the Witch real or imagined? Is she a physical manifestation of Lucas’ grief writ large from his anger? There are moments in the film where you may think it is the former, and others where you are convinced it is the latter, but the film never quite answers that question for you. The fact that Lucas simply wakes up in the woods after his first encounter with the Witch presents a multitude of questions. Did he die in the building? Is he dreaming? Is what we see real or has his fragile mind broken, his body still back with the Witch? In many ways, Lucas becomes an unreliable narrator, and we are never quite sure what is real or not.
That doesn’t mean the film lacks an “ending” It just doesn’t tidy everything up for you and leaves you with some questions. While many films don’t do this very well and leave you feeling cheated, I don’t think Slapface does that and, in many ways, it doesn’t need to tie everything up in a bow. Its ambiguity is its strength.
Slapface ends with a figurative slap in the face for the audience and drives home the impact that trauma, grief, and bullying can have on people. And this isn’t a film where the bullies get their comeuppance in front of the school or the town. That may well come at a later date, but Slapface’s story and ending are about the impacts these things have on the innocent victims and, regardless of whether a bully gets their comeuppance, the damage is often already done. Playing Slapface draws a line under things, but doesn’t resolve them so Lucas, and those around him, never stand a chance.
A lot of people will probably hate it for its ambiguity, but I didn’t. I have said before that I don’t have a problem with open-ended films, as long as they leave enough breadcrumbs for you to follow and form opinions/theories as to how things have played out. Obfuscation for the sake of it is annoying. Slapface does a good enough job of leaving a trail and not leaving you completely adrift. There are still things I am not sure about, but nothing that leaves me feeling cheated. I am still thinking about Slapface a few days after watching it and not just because I am writing a review, but because I am intrigued by the way everything has played out. I am thinking about the message and, while it is not necessarily subtle, it is an important one.
I’ve also seen some reviewers comment about the relationships and characters portrayed in Slapface being poorly developed and unrealistic but, again, I did not have an issue with them. The big concern surrounds Lucas’ relationship with Moriah and the twins; why was he so desperate to be friends with people who were so clearly arseholes? But things aren’t always that clear cut, are they? Lucas has suffered a lot and lost a lot so is just looking for any kind of acceptance from a town that is losing its patience with his behaviour. He needs somewhere to belong. It is no less likely that he would try and get the Twins onside as it is that he would form a relationship with the Virago Witch.
Performance-wise the film is okay. Some of the acting is a little shaky, but nothing that would detract from the film as a whole; August Maturo does a great job in his role. It looks good as well, lots of muted colours and drab backgrounds which work well with the tone of the film. It is quite dark in places, but never so dark that you can’t see what is going on. I was a little disappointed with the design of the Witch as it essentially boiled down to a classic hook nose and big chin look, but that may just be me? Who is to say that a young boy, his imagination gone wild, isn’t going to imagine a witch exactly as he would have seen in films or storybooks as a kid?
This isn’t a film for those looking for lots of gory kills. The film leans more into the psychological side of things, focusing on the uneasy relationship between Lucas and his new friend. Where there is violence, much of it plays out offscreen, leaving the audience to witness the aftermath, further playing into the puzzle of whether the Witch is doing this or whether it is Lucas.
Slapface put me in mind of Mama which dealt with similar issues around trauma, but also doesn’t focus on gore or violence. There were also elements that made me think about Antlers and The Babadook and while, for me, Slapface didn’t quite work as well as those films, it wasn’t a long way behind. It’s not an overly scary film, but a lot of the emphasis is on unease and fear of what could happen, rather than being out and out scary. There are a few reviews on IMDB from people who clearly didn’t like the film and that drags its overall score down. It currently sits at 5.2 on IMDB, but I think I would push it closer to 6.
If you want gore and intense, scary scenes then this isn’t for you, but if you fancy something a little more psychological, which doesn’t hold your hand through all the plot turns, then I think you will enjoy Slapface. The plot is not overly original and, while you can see most of the twists and turns coming, the set-ups and ending still leave you with some questions about what was real and what might just be supernatural.
Slapface is currently streaming on Shudder and, if you have a subscription, then what have you got to lose?
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