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Jeremiah Kipp's 'Slapface' is a Flawed But Intriguing Morality Tale

A boy hugs a man's neck
August Maturo as LUCAS in SLAPFACE

Stories of childhood trauma and dysfunctional families dominate the horror genre these days. Horror, with its emphasis on raw emotion, sensation, and visceral experiences, offers the perfect playground to showcase the impact these experiences can have on a person long after the physical harm ends. But abuse comes in different forms with different consequences. What happens when the lines between affection and abuse become blurred? Director and screenwriter Jeremiah Kipp tackles this twist in his feature film Slapface, based on a short he released in 2018.

Lucas (August Maturo) lives with his older brother Tom (Mike Manning) in Fishkill, New York. They are the survivors of a car crash that killed both their parents, leaving the two of them alone. Tom, a functional alcoholic, does the best he can to raise his younger brother and provide a living, but he is sorely unequipped for such a task. Left to himself most of the day, Lucas wanders around in the woods behind his house, sometimes getting bullied by twins, Donna and Rose (Bianca and Chaira D'Ambrosio, respectively) and their friend Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), who is secretly Lucas's girlfriend.

Lucas becomes known as the town's problem child, and the local sheriff (Dan Hedaya) advises Tom to get Lucas under control. Tom chooses to enact discipline through a game of Slapface, where the two brothers take turns slapping each other across the face as hard as they can. As ridiculous as this game sounds, the brothers see Slapface as a sacred ritual that allows them to clean the air between each other. Once Slapface is over, all is forgiven, and they agree to move on.

A man holds a gun while he's sitting in bed.
Mike Manning as TOM in SLAPFACE
Things take a turn when Lucas visits the ruins of the Fishkill Wakefield house, an abandoned asylum, and encounters the Virago witch (a term used for a woman of great power with attributes of a man), a notorious town legend thought to be missing. At first, Lucas runs from her presence, but eventually, he begins to view her as a friend and comforter. Starved for affection and attention, Lucas finds the Virago witch to be no more or less problematic than any other attachment figure in his life. The Virago witch becomes mother and father, friend and angel. But as the Virago witch inserts herself into Lucas' life, she takes her charge to protect Lucas too far, enacting vengeance upon anyone who would do him harm.

Jeremiah Kipp writes a bleak and compelling film that captures complex emotional truths within a fairly simple premise. In the original short, Kipp knocks it out of the park with a laser sharp focus, maximizing the imagery and minimizing dialogue. The feature-length version loses much of the impact with a sloppier execution. No doubt expanding a short into a feature requires taking up more space, but what do you fill that space with? Kipp chooses to spend more time on character development via unnecessary dialogue and characters that lack purpose -- the character of Anna (Libe Barer), Tom's new love interest, is the worst inclusion. Anna and Tom have an unhealthy push-pull relationship that just causes unnecessary drama. Anna was created just to have another body to kill. She takes up precious screen time that would be better served learning more about Lucas, Tom, and the long-dead parents. Even Sheriff Thurston is a more intriguing character, who has tried, to an extent, to be a pseudo-father to the boys while keeping his distance. He gives an intriguing speech later in the movie that hints at being close to the boys' mother. The movie is at its best when we witness the intriguing dynamic between Lucas and Tom. And what was the boys' home life like before the parents died? We get so little information on these much more compelling plot points. A tighter screenplay with more convincing dialogue would have greatly improved the viewing experience.

A girl holding a cigarette shows her necklace to a younger boy
Libe Barer as ANNA in SLAPFACE

Kipp and cinematographer Dominick Sivilli do pull off a haunting fairy tale atmosphere with the portions that take place in the woods and inside the asylum. This is the stuff horror is made of and every horror director needs to know how to manipulate a pile of leaves or an abandoned building into a harbinger of doom. Aided by the music score of Barry J. Neely, Slapface packs a powerful visual punch that isn't backed up by most of the acting. Maturo as Lucas does the best job, as well as Lukas Hassel as The Monster, a silent presence that uses expressive body language to great effect.

Despite the missteps, there's a valuable lesson to be had about the importance of being an example. Kipp wisely proves this theme without needing an overt statement. Everyone is living out what they have been taught from their past. Tom knows how to be a father, from his father, who had a violent streak. His interactions with Anna hint at a hidden violence he is able to unleash within the boundaries of the game of Slapface. Lucas gets more attention from Tom when he acts out. There is the physical sensation of the mutual beating, followed by a camaraderie. It's a cleansing ritual that gives them a secret bond. It's no wonder then that he is drawn to Moriah, who bullies him when she's with the twins and then treats him with deference in private. And the Monster knows violence from what they see between Lucas and Tom. It's all a game with no consequences. Love means pain.

Kipp's film Slapface is not without its merits. But perhaps its greatest sin is that this issue-driven film doesn't leave much room for hope or a way forward. The end credits address bullying and domestic abuse and encourage people to ask for help, but in Tom and Lucas' case, the cycles of abuse continue without intervention. Even when people in the community offer to help, the brothers choose not to accept and suffer in silence. The open-ended conclusion leaves room for what the future holds, but it doesn't look bright either way. Every movie leave viewers with a taste in their mouth. After Slapface, all I felt was despair. 

Release info: On Shudder February 3, 2022

Final score: 2.5 out of 5

Poster for Slapface