Frightfest and Shudder present Slapface, coming soon to Shudder. Book festival tickets here.
If A Monster Calls (2016) showed us the healing power of an invisible monster in the life of an angry young boy, Jeremiah Kipp’s complex and harrowing Slapface demonstrates the dangers. Based on his self-penned 2018 short film of the same name, Kipp further builds on the themes of isolation, childhood trauma and emotional repression found in his short. The result of which is an exceptional feature-length drama/horror that asks us what happens when fantasy overtakes reality in the life of a troubled young teen. And how do isolation, bullying, and emotional repression help breed a volatile and uncontrollable internal rage?
Slapface opens with two brothers sitting alone in a rundown house on the edge of some woods. Here Tom (Mike Manning), the oldest, sits opposite the younger Lucas (August Maturo). With nothing but silence around them, Tom asks whether Lucas is ready and proceeds to slap his face. Lucas returns the slap, and the cycle continues; each strike harder than the last, as the brothers stare into each other’s eyes. This brotherly ritual is called slapface. Its purpose, the physical manifestation of internal emotional pain. The result, the avoidance of communication as both brothers inflict pain on each other rather than talking. But why does this ritual exist?
Having lost their parents several years before, Lucas and Tom are alone, their brotherly bond all that holds the household together. But, this bond is also fractured, problematic and rooted in repressed anger and grief. Here Tom spends his days working as a labourer and drinking while entertaining women he has picked up in local bars. Meanwhile, Lucas spends his days alone, wandering the local woods while trying to forge friendships. However, his only real friend Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) is also friends with two local twins who taunt Lucas at every opportunity. Her inability to stand up for Lucas cutting at him like a razor-sharp knife as he suffers torment and ridicule.
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Seeking escape and comfort, Lucas becomes obsessed with a local legend of a witch who is rumoured to reside in an abandoned house. And when the twins and Moriah dare Lucas to enter the ruins, he does so with bravery and apprehension. But, as he encounters the mysterious rag covered monster, his initial fears dissipate. The strange creature, becoming a friend and console as he attempts to navigate his internal anger and fear. But, as their relationship deepens, the divide between the creature and Lucas becomes ever more tenuous. The monster enacting the boys deepest and darkest wants and desires as Lucas silently screams for escape and attention.
Kipp’s film holds the families past at a purposeful distance, with small hints at the dysfunctional life Tom and Lucas have suffered. For example, it’s clear that Tom’s drinking echoes that of their father, Lucas, keeping his distance from his brother as a result. Meanwhile, the grief surrounding the boys only ever finds a voice in one powerful scene where Tom finally speaks about their mother’s death. However, Lucas quickly shuts down this conversation, stating, “we don’t talk about that”. This ambiguity only adds to the sense of mystery and tension surrounding Kipp’s accomplished screenplay. Here the family unit is rooted in unspoken pain, the cuts that cover its surface still raw and sensitive to the touch.
August Maturo as Lucas in Slapface
However, there is a glimmer of light when Tom brings home a new girlfriend, Anna (Libe Barer). The emotionally closed atmosphere of the house, suddenly breached by a woman who sees the pain and hurt surrounding both boys. However, Anna is held captive by the inability of Tom to accept the damage at the heart of his relationship with Lucas. His biggest fear, the invasion of social services and the break up of his only remaining family ties. Here Kipp speaks directly to the fear of intervention that surrounds many dysfunctional family units. The inability of a parent or guardian to see past their fear only causing further damage to the child or children caught in the middle.
In truth, Lucas and Tom are both held captive by their repressed emotional trauma. Their game of slapface, a form of self-harm that allows their anger to breach the surface, if only briefly. Therefore, is it a wonder that Lucas finds comfort in the arms of a supernatural tale and mysterious yet murderous monster? Here, Kipp laces the psychodrama at the heart of Slapface with a beautifully layered horror. The witch, protecting Lucas while equally hurting him; its very presence symbolic of the slapface game the brothers play, as pain provides brief respite only to cause more pain.
READ MORE: KILLER THERAPY
With a screenplay this rich in social discussion and adolescent psychology, you may think Slapface would trip over its own complexity. But surprisingly, it doesn’t; its themes held perfectly together in a compelling and haunting mix of drama and horror. Much of this success comes from the central performance of August Maturo, who manages to portray the hidden pain at the heart of Lucas through a single look or gesture. His outstanding performance dovetailing the repressed emotions of Lucas with a silent rage that screams to find release. His final scenes, utterly harrowing as years of pent up emotion find release.
Kipp’s movie is unafraid to tackle abuse, isolation and anger through a lens of horror. His movie transcending genre boundaries as it laces its folk horror with a far scarier premise; the reality that many of our monsters are held within. The result is an outstanding social horror that challenges the barriers of perceived masculinity that only further damage boys suffering from emotional trauma. While simultaneously encouraging us to question where the boundary between supernatural and natural horror lies in the harrowing journey of Lucas.
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