Actions have consequences. We may not know what they are in the instant that we make a choice, but they come eventually. Sometimes the consequence is something joyful, bringing light and life to you and those around you. Other times, it’s pain and despair. In life, there is no single choice that’s made that doesn’t come with reverberations or ramifications. Because of this, it really matters that you’re present in the moment when you make a decision in order to ensure the best outcome. No matter how hard we try, though, some things can’t be avoided, especially when the consequence doesn’t begin with our own choice, but someone else’s. Writer/director Jeremiah Kipp’s latest feature film Slapface, streaming on Shudder since February 2022, is all about consequences and what happens when everyone turns a blind eye to the choices made around them. It’s harsh and unforgiving, using supernatural trappings to explore the ramifications of grief and abuse.
Lucas (August Maturo) and his older brother Tom (Mike Manning) do their best to survive each day since the passing of their parents. Tom leaves early in the morning to work construction to provide for the two of them, while Lucas either wanders the town alone or is tormented by twin bullies Donna and Rose (Bianca and Chiara D’Ambrosio). Though Tom’s new girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) brings a little light into the house and Lucas finds comfort in a secret relationship with Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), nothing fills the hole left by the loss of his mother. Because of this, he finds himself open to creating a relationship with a powerful force which takes the form of a woman living in a dilapidated building in the middle of nowhere. It cares for him when no one else seems to and protects him from harm. There’s just one problem: when everyone causes Lucas some kind of harm, no one is safe.
Life can be hard enough in a loving household, but it becomes immeasurably harder when pain is everywhere you look. In the script by Kipp, the title for the film is also the name of a game played by the brothers which the audience is introduced to at the literal start of the film. It’s just them, the screen split between an image of one and the credits before fading into the other and more credits. We watch as Lucas steals himself, no sound available except the sounds of Lucas breathing and hands impacting flesh faster and harder. It’s difficult to tell from the way Manning plays it if Tom is disaffected by the experience, but Maturo plays it as Lucas being shook. Depending on how you feel about sibling abuse, there’s a high chance that you will feel this way, too. After a few slaps, when the audience is good an uncomfortable, the title card appears followed by the rest of the credits opposite artwork depicting a creature among people from what could be the Medieval period, all still in splitscreen. The images themselves soon fade and turn into newspapers, each detailing a different incident with missing people and claims of a woman who made violent things happen. Kipp is sending a signal to the audience about a cycle of abuse that extends beyond Lucas and Tom, but the question becomes about the connection to the woman in the woods. We know we’re in for a horror film, so trouble is coming and it will be violent and it will be bloody — but what does it all mean?
What undercuts a lot of the emotional work of the narrative and performances from the cast is the way the script short-hands too much. We don’t know why Lucas goes to the facility to conjure the woman: is he asking for help to get his mother back? Is he seeking protection from his brother or the bullies? Which, when we meet the twins, they are beating him up for taking something from Moriah, who does nothing to stop their abuse. It’s not until after this introduction that we learn she likes him and keeps it a secret from the twins. Moriah’s lack of action in these moments is possibly worse than when she joins in on the bullying and is amplified when she bails on him at the first sign of Lucas being in over his head. Except we haven’t seen enough of her with Lucas to feel any of the loss at her presumed comfort or company that he does. One can go out on a limb, creating conjecture based on what we see, but there’s too little confirmed, discussed, or offered to provide any kind of explanation as to why she reacts as she does in Lucas’s time of need or why he’s as devastated by it as he is.
Because of this, the allegorical nature of Kipp’s story loses much of the effectiveness ahead of its end, which deserves recognition for where it goes. Though, and this may just be one more thing that feels like it needs explaining, the image montage at the start of the film heavily implies a local legend involving the force/woman and its relationship with people, specifically of the area the film takes place within. One presumes that this is why Lucas knew where to go and what to do to summon said force. But if this information is public knowledge, so much so that there have been many reported instances of children blaming violent acts on a woman over the years, why hasn’t anyone in the town, especially the family-friend sheriff (played by Dan Hedaya, The Addams Family), looking into incidents that Lucas doesn’t possess the physical abilities or means to make happen? The lack of scenes setting up backstory or moments to explain the absence of reasonable things dampens the overall narrative efficacy, which detracts from all of the good within Slapface.
It appears that Slapface first released as a nine-minute short film in 2018 with only Lukas Hassel appearing in both and doing so as the force, though possibly as a different being since he’s listed as Ogre in the credits versus in Slapface where he’s listed as the Monster. Having not seen the original, I can’t speak to the similarities or differences between the two versions, but I can understand where Kipp may have wanted to expound on a concept as a full feature. Slapface is certainly a meal of a movie, even if not everything comes across as intended. With cinematography handled by Dominick Sivilli (The Last Straw) in both versions, Slapface carries with it the sense of rotting that goes beyond the building Lucas finds the force/woman in, the clear chill in the air day or night, and the fallen leaves on the floor. It’s not that the scenes are dirty, the frame loaded with gunk or haze obscuring our view, it’s that there’s no single moment in the film where anything feels light or free. Conveyed either through the performances, cinematography, staging, or Kat VanCleave’s (Angelfish) production design, everything communicates a sense of turmoil. There’s a brief sequence where Lucas tries to befriend the twins in the presence of Moriah, the three girls hanging out in a pool, but Kipp has shot it so that Lucas is in one frame, Moriah is in another, and the twins are alone. There is no community, no shared space here, which makes the twins’ entrance to Lucas’s frame feel like an attack.
In my mind, Slapface is a film about abuse, pure and simple; yet, what complicates things is that it comes from a place involving tainted love. In just about every relationship Lucas has, there’s some kind of cruelty or denial of appreciation. He’s in need of protection and finds it in the force/woman, who offers unconditional protection, yet it manifests in further violence or abuse to others. This offers an interesting exploration of how abusive cycles function, the source often believed to be coming from a good place rather than being straight malice. Lucas is loved by his brother (in his way) and is shown great affection by Anna, but it’s not enough to protect him from the implied abuse he suffered from his father, the actual abuse he gets from the twins, and the emotional abuse from Moriah. In a way, Slapface implies the notion that when one fights bullies, they themselves become the bully, whether that’s the intent or not. One cannot take back a strike against someone any more than one can unbreak a glass or plate that’s been shattered. There’s an innocence lost when someone’s been brutalized physically or emotionally that can be difficult to mend, making them vulnerable to anyone who offers safety. From start to finish, Kipp’s film is agonizing for the way help is too rare and is frequently too late, the trauma a permanent fixture which cannot be mended.
Available for streaming on Shudder February 3rd, 2022.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.