With ‘Slapface’, writer-director Jeremiah Kipp uses monster as monster, alongside family trauma including grief and abuse, rather than instead of. Brothers Lucas (August Maturo) and Tom (Mike Manning) are in the throes of grief after the death of their parents, and older brother Tom must shoulder the responsibility of being the breadwinner as well as Lucas’ legal guardian. Lucas is more than a handful, acting out with teenage angst and rage exacerbated by the recent loss, plus he is bullied by (interestingly), twin girls Donna and Rose (Bianca and Chiara D’Ambrosio) and their friend Moriah (Mirabelle Lee). Lucas’ disorderly conduct has earned the ire of town sheriff John Thurston (Dan Hedaya), and while John allows some leeway due to his relationship with the family, he warns Tom that his patience as well as Lucas’ ‘Get out of jail free’ pass is wearing out.
Tom’s method of disciplining his brother is an ugly yet understandable choice, the game that provides the film’s title. Slapface consists of the brothers slapping each other in the face, Lucas being punished for whatever infraction he has made and seeing that these infractions hurt his brother as well. The scenes of slapface are among the most distressing in the film, the sound of flesh striking flesh becoming steadily more wince-inducing as do Tom’s insistences of ‘Harder!’ But as mentioned, it is understandable that this is all Tom can do – when things go badly he tells Lucas ‘We’re gonna play slapface’. Tom has an emotionally repressed toxic masculinity, unwilling to talk because that is not part of the male identity that he understands. Rather than open up, he attempts in instil this same repression in his brother, unable to engage with Lucas’ anguish anymore than his own. Tom’s girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) tries to reach the older brother’s compassion but mainly sparks his rage, as their scenes together often start out as intimate but rapidly turn into shouting matches.
From this wretched existence, Lucas seeks associations with others, including Moriah who exhibits that strange adolescent tendency to torment the boy that she likes, and the Virago (Lukas Hassel), a monstrous witch that haunts the woods. Is the Virago a projection of Lucas’ confused feelings that lack an outlet? No, it’s a straightforward monster, that does not fill the role of monster as we might expect. The design of the Virago is certainly monstrous and its appearance is often a jump scare, well-handled by Kipp and editor Katie Dillon. Yet Lucas regards the creature as his friend and the scenes between them display a lightheartedness and wellbeing that Lucas’ home life lacks.
The idea of boy befriends monster can be used for charming or amusing fare. As the non-supernatural elements suggest, ‘Slapface’ offers little in the way of laughs or happy feelings. The visual palette matches the grim subject matter, production designer Kat VanCleave and cinematographer Dominick Sivilli using muted tones and cold light to create a sober atmosphere. The locations are highly expressive, including the brothers’ house, the wintry woods and the abandoned building where Lucas hides and first encounters the Virago. The spaces and atmosphere create a palatable sense of oppression, allowing the viewer to share in Lucas’ troubled headspace. As events escalate, Lucas’ friendships both human and otherwise prove dangerous and more than he can handle, and the final act delivers a steadily increasing sense of dread, leading to a shattering climax that is all the more tragic because the viewer can clearly anticipate what is coming. ‘Slapface’ offers a bleak and compelling portrait of abuse and bullying, never forgetting that true horror is found close to home.