Credit: Shudder
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Streaming Scene

Slapface — Jeremiah Kipp

February 3, 2022

Like so much recent horror, Slapface relies too heavily on soft metaphor, but there’s sufficient talent here to still keep things interesting.

Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface begins with two males playing the titular game over an opening credits crawl; one is older, clearly larger than the other, who’s barely a tween, as they take turns slapping each other as hard as they can. Their measured speaking tones suggest they’ve done this before, neither flinching as their faces are repeatedly assaulted. The pair are in fact brothers, but it’s the obvious imbalance of power between the two that makes the most immediate impression. Much of Kipp’s film lives in this nebulous gray zone between play-fighting and actual violence, between “boys will be boys” shenanigans and aggressive bullying. That neither older brother Tom (Mike Manning) nor young Lucas (August Maturo) seems to be able to tell the difference is a large part of the problem. The brothers live alone in a rundown, small town in Anyplace, USA. Their father is long gone, and the brothers seem reluctant to discuss him, while their mother is recently deceased, a loss they appear to feel much more acutely.

Tom works the odd construction job to make ends meet, while Lucas spends his days combing the nearby woods, frequently running afoul of a trio of girls who torment him. Here, too, is another social ritual predicated on violence, playful or otherwise. Lucas likes one of the girls, and she likes him in return, but the two indulge in a facade of antagonism to keep their mutual crush secret from the other girls. It’s during one of Lucas’ daily wanderings that he comes across an abandoned building that is home to a mythical witch. Lucas is terrified at first, scared to death at this strange creature he has stumbled upon. But curiously, he forms an attachment of sorts to it, and it to him. Meanwhile, Tom has met someone, too: Anna (Libe Barer) begins staying with the brothers, cooking dinners and generally making herself at home. It quickly becomes clear that Lucas is desperate for a mother figure, and that he’s starved for attention of any sort. It’s through Anna that Kipp pierces the cloistered existence of the brothers, as she calls their “games” out for what they really are — child abuse. One particularly striking moment finds Tom defending himself to Anna, claiming that he knows how to raise his brother just fine, without any help, and besides he would never hit a woman. It’s Tom’s inability to comprehend that hitting his brother is just as bad as hitting his girlfriend — to him, one action is socially acceptable, even encouraged, while the other is frowned upon (at least in public spaces).

Slapface plays out like a bizarre boy’s adventure tale mixed with a supernatural metaphor for unbridled grief. Indeed, minus some violence and rough language, this could easily scan as a YA story. Unfortunately, only one of these threads really works. Maturo is a remarkable young actor, effortlessly carrying the film on his shoulders. He is asked to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting, and he nails it. When he’s gallivanting around with his new witch friend, tentatively sussing out just how far he can take things, the film is quite compelling. Less interesting is Kipp playing coy with the witch’s provenance; it’s not so subtly suggested that this creature might just be a figment of Lucas’ imagination, and that the inevitable violence wrought by the witch is actually Lucas’ own doing. Another demerit comes from the witch’s cheap makeup and generic design, not much more than a Spirit Halloween store mask right off the rack. The filmmakers do what they can to cloak the figure in ominous shadows, playing peekaboo with its face, but the occasional closeup gives away the game. That’s not to say there’s not plenty to like here. Kipp has a nice eye for unfussy naturalism, which appealingly grounds the supernatural aspects of his story in a semblance of realism, and gets fine performances from his entire cast. Slapface isn’t a resounding success, and like a lot of recent horror, one wishes it was content to scare instead of goosing the narrative with loose metaphor. But there’s a lot of notable talent on display here, and it’ll be worth watching for whatever Kipp does next.

You can currently stream Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface on Shudder.