Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface doesn’t soften its anti-bullying stance, nor would I hope for anything less. Horror’s fearless approach when spotlighting macabre themes offers storytellers the unique opportunity to confront traumatic darkness head-on. Carrie, Unfriended and Some Kind of Hate all take drastically different approaches to investigating the consequences often produced by harassment, but Slapface struggles to keep stride with more glowing examples. Writer/director Kipp expands his short into a feature that at times struggles to elongate an otherwise poignant message, leaving other worldbuilding details behind in a way that undercuts structural integrity. I’m all for awareness, but wonky narrative stumbles aren’t ignorable.
Loner adolescent Lucas (August Maturo) lives amidst woodland poverty with his brother Tom (Mike Manning), abandoned after both mother and father die in a car accident. While promoted patriarch Tom works manual labor to pay their bills (and his Coors Light consumption), Lucas flees from schoolyard bullies, including his secret girlfriend Moriah (Mirabelle Lee). Sheriff John Thurston (Dan Hedaya) warns Tom that Lucas will find himself in serious trouble someday, but Tom has no answer beyond working himself thirsty and hopeless. Lucas is left unattended for hours, which is how he meets an otherworldly entity known to locals as The Virago Witch—who becomes the isolated boy’s protector and only friend.
Slapface names itself after a “game” Tom and Lucas play, taking turns smacking each other’s face raw as a means of frustration exertion. It’s the only way Tom knows how to distract Lucas from their looming tragedy, but represents only one aspect of Lucas’ violence-ruled existence. Twins Donna (Bianca D’Ambrosio) and Rose (Chiara D’Ambrosio) torment Lucas by throwing stones or rubbing his nose in dehydrated fallen leaves. Virago massacres to please its newfound companion. Everyone shows Lucas that pain is the only way to feel anything, especially when Moriah partakes in Donna and Rose’s hurtful pranks. Kipp’s screenplay best displays Lucas’ reality, shared by many other targets of bullying—he’s told over and over that torment defines his worth. It becomes routine, even a learned personality trait.
Lukas Hassel stars as “The Monster” (once “Ogre” in Kipp’s original short), hidden behind grungy hooded cloaks and crooked-nose makeup prosthetics akin to the Wicked Witch in Disney’s classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Lucas’ guardian angel operates as neither good nor evil, blurring the lines by punishing whosoever dares harm the weak preteen after some bonding in an abandoned hospital. There aren’t summoning rules outside Virago slaughtering humans and animals—sorry, dog and rat lovers, this movie uses four-legged friends to make brutal points—whenever the film calls for confrontation. It’s a cycle of fantastical revenge. Lucas is continually blamed for Virago’s antics, calling Gandhi’s “eye for an eye” mantra to mind while using rage as a dangerous recourse aimed at bullies. Some lessons land. Others are lost in shaky edits that fail to clarify passages of time.
One minute Tom clutches Lucas tight, insisting his little brother confess what happened to bar-hookup-turned-partner Anna (Libe Barer)—the next, literally seconds later, he’s Jameson and light-beer drunk, fully clothed in the bathtub. Moriah’s betrayal then immediate pursuit of forgiveness is a dance that missteps here and there. However, peer pressure stands out as an admirable antagonist. That’s the frustration of it all: Slapface unanimously succeeds at making us loathe almost every character based on their mistreatment of others, but that’s also the film’s toughest pill to swallow. Characters are flying off handles left and right, fodder to fuel Virago’s spree. Reconciliation is missing amidst the retribution—blood just flows. Childhood is the nightmare. Slapface is heartbreaking, wounded and despicable in its methods, to the point where emptiness overrides all else.
I struggle with Slapface because Kipp mounts an offensive against a hits-home cause I’ll forever support. It’s indie through-and-through, as cinematography blurs thanks to unshieldable sunlight and performances make do with what’s available. It’s certainly not the most technically polished Shudder exclusive. Slapface goes all-in on Lucas’ relationship with a murderous, destructive witch, but even Bad Milo and its butt demon speak a bit clearer when clarifying stances on abuse and recourse. Intentions and executions are forever separate elements, and I fear Slapface is better at conveying the former while fumbling the latter.
Director: Jeremiah Kipp
Writer: Jeremiah Kipp
Starring: August Maturo, Mike Manning, Dan Hedaya, Mirabelle Lee, Lukas Hassel, Libe Barer
Release Date: February 3, 2022 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.