‘I saw a monster today’ intones Lucas (August Maturo) at the dinner table in writer/director Jeremiah Kipp’s elevated horror film; as is tradition in such films, no-one listens to the boy until it’s too late. But Lucas has seen a monster, or at least conjured one up from his own unhappiness; Lucas and his brother Tom (Mike Manning) have lost their parents in a car crash, and are living by themselves in a shotgun shack in a sparsely populated backwater. So what exactly is the monster that Lucas sees? It’s to Kipp’s credit that, for once, the creature revealed is not an anti-climax, but a frenemy the like of which we’ve not quite seen before.
The film opens with the two brothers playing Slapface, a game in which Lucas and Tom slap each other harder and harder. It’s hard to watch, largely because we don’t yet have context; is this a shared ritual, or is it bullying, or both? As the story develops, we discover that Lucas is also being harassed directly by a group of girls, who dare him to explore an abandoned building where he encounters a creature named the Virago Witch (Lukas Hassel). As the name suggest, sexual orientation is important here; the gang of malicious kids reminds us of Stephen King’s IT, but the notion of male characters fearful of girls is fresh and original.
The witch, not surprisingly, announces itself with an effective jump scare, but then becomes a character in Lucas’s world, sometimes friendly and helpful, at other times deadly and malevolent. Is it a supernatural force, or does it represent Luca’s fears and anxiety about himself? Appearing while Lucas is in the bath, or searching through a box of his late mother’s clothes, connects the witch to the young boys sense of himself, sexually or otherwise, but it’s only in the film’s closing stretch, with the intervention of a tough but sympathetic local cop (the always great Dan Hedaya) that we can see clearly exactly what the witch’s function is…
Slapface is a thoughtful and original horror entry that should appeal to the many who enjoyed The Babadook, using childhood fears to say something about the way we externalise out inner fears. Maturo and Manning are convincing as the two brothers at the centre of the narrative, but there’s also good work from Libe Barer as Anna, Tom’s Wiccan girlfriend, and Mirabelle Lee as Donna, one of Lucas’s tormentors. Although there’s a traditional foreshadowing of ancient devilish images and worrying newspaper headlines over the opening credits, Kipp’s film never fully explains the backstory of the Virago Witch, and that’s a plus; while most horror turns out to be a damp squib, Slapface haunts the mind with its ambiguous, tricky evocation of our darkest childhood fears.
Slapface is on Shudder US and UK now, free 7/30 days trials can be found at https://www.shudder.com/