Bel Morrigan says that Slapface masterfully uses a monster to tell an all too human story.
SLAPFACE is an indie horror film written and directed by Jeremiah Kipp that pulls you in and refuses to let you go. The Shudder Original, produced by DREAD, revolves around Lucas (August Maturo), a young boy dealing with grief, bullying, and abuse. The combination of these terrible realities generally never bodes well, but it is tragic beyond measure for a young teenage boy who is yet to understand life fully.
The film begins focused on Lucas and a voice out of frame stating, “you know why we have to do this,” before Lucas is slapped by Tom (Mike Manning). The two exchange heavy slaps with only the sounds of palms smacking again skin and Lucas’ labored breathing echoing through the room. The cold open is incredibly effective. Lucas assumes a parental role by jovially criticizing Tom’s skill in preparing food. The two scenes juxtapose each other, throwing the audience off-balance. We don’t know what to think, which creates a tension that we aren’t allowed to release.
The tension grows as we watch Lucas running through the woods, calling for help as three young girls chase after him, throwing rocks at his head. It’s the first glimpse of Lucas's bullying and subverts society usually tells us that bullying does not cross gendered lines. To see a boy tormented by girls truly shines a light on the cruelty of bullying and any preconceived stereotypes. Generally, society will allow certain forms of bullying by passing it off as “typical” gendered behavior. The absurdity of assuming there is such a thing as “typical gendered behavior” is a tangent I’ll save for another time. Bullying is never acceptable, and the torment that Lucas endures is robust evidence of that.
Twisting the knife further, we meet one of the girls tormenting Lucas. The girl is Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), who we realize cares for Lucas. Still, she joins in on the bullying to retain her friendship with the twin girls, Donna (Bianca D’Ambrosio) and Rose (Chiara D’Ambrosio). We discover that the twins routinely tease Moriah. Though they bully her, they live in a small town, and these are the only friendships she has, and she wants to hold onto them, even if that means putting herself in emotionally harmful situations and causing harm to Lucas. SLAPFACE wants the audience to see the complexities of human relationships. Positivity and negativity tend to co-exist, particularly when trauma is involved.
There are several moments throughout the film where Moriah will bully Lucas, then be apologetic and affectionate. We have insight into the complex situation that she finds herself in. However, Lucas is not privy to this. Moriah’s actions work as a commentary on the abusive tactic of love-bombing, whereby the abuser will shower the victim with affection to counter-act their abusive behavior. This pattern of abuse becomes so routine that the victim will accept the abuse just to get those crumbs of love. The victim feels that the affection is a gift and not something they deserve. Moriah may not intentionally do this, but her confusing actions cause additional turmoil for Lucas, eroding his trust.
We find Lucas at an abandoned building, digging a hole in the ground outside, placing a picture of his mother and him inside, and cutting his finger, allowing blood to drip into the hole. This ritual of connection to his Mother's spirit manifests into a monster whom we first meet when Lucas is roaming the abandoned building on a dare from the bullies. The monster grabs Lucas, and when he screams, it leads the girls to run away. We cut to Lucas waking on the forest floor beside Moriah, apologizing for leaving him behind. Again, the audience is thrust off balance, not knowing how Lucas has ended up here. It’s disorienting. I feel this was a very deliberate decision by Kipp to make us question the reality of what Lucas sees and experiences.
Lucas returns to the monster frequently, seeking a parental figure that he can trust. Tom’s girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) genuinely cares for Lucas, but Lucas rejects her because her presence may alter his relationship with his brother Tom. It highlights the conflict within Lucas. He loves his brother, but Tom is abusing him. It’s complicated, but it’s all he knows and all he has. Anna threatens their complex bond, putting her in danger. The monster is protective of Lucas. It tends to his wounds when he injures his hand and ruthlessly dispatches a dog that chases him. Anna eventually butts heads with Tom over his relationship with Lucas, rightly calling him out on being absent and abusive. The fight prompts her to leave, and when she returns, she walks in on Lucas, washing blood off his clothes. He casually says, “What? It is just dogs’ blood.” The delivery from Maturo is very chilling.
I’m unsure if I found this chilling because of the cold and emotionless delivery or if it is because Lucas is a child. Perhaps a tiny bit of both. Anny isn’t scared away, and she realizes that Lucas is calling out for help and is in crisis. She calls Tom out again, culminating in an argument that leads to an explosion from Tom where he loudly proclaims, “I am not abusing my kid brother.” Anna snaps back, asking, “Are you going to hit me?” Tom quickly remarks that he does not hit women. Anna’s face contorts as she quietly says, “No, just little boys,” and storms off. The interaction gives us insight into Tom’s inner life for the first time since the film’s onset and reminds us that he is also dealing with grief and loss. Tom’s inability to cope and process his grief clouds his perception of his abusive behavior towards his brother. Once again, SLAPFACE reveals its connective tissue about the complexities of human existence in the presence of trauma.
Anna comes across a young girl handing out flyers to find her missing dog. Setting off alarm bells as Anna realizes that Lucas’ comment about dogs' blood was not a throw-away comment. She returns to the house, but the monster is waiting there unbeknownst to her, causing the audience to doubt reality. It is the first time we see the monster without Lucas present, so we wonder if this is a real supernatural monster. The monster's continued protection of Lucas has deadly consequences.
Lucas is brought into the station by the police for questioning. Sheriff John Thurston (Dan Hedaya) is an interesting character, as he is constantly referencing that he knew Lucas and Tom’s Mother. Having known her, he says, “they would not have wanted this,” using the memory of their dead mother to coax the grieving Lucas to change his behavior. I feel it’s a commentary that many in society think there is only one appropriate way to grieve. Any behavior that deviates from that expectation is judged and shamed. The Sheriff talks to Lucas, who says it was the monster who did terrible things, and the Sheriff very aptly responds that when people do bad things that they cannot forgive themselves for, they create fiction to explain the behavior. The scene feels like a moment of meta-commentary as it is both the Sheriff accurately describing a fact about the human psyche following moments of violence and trauma. Still, it also relays the reality of the events we’ve witnessed to the audience.
Without spoiling the ending, the final shot reframes the entire film while also leaving things ambiguous. We never know for sure who is responsible for the bad things that have occurred. Regardless of which perspective you believe, Lucas was both a protector and the cause of suffering. I feel the monster places its hand evenly between good and evil. Lucas is a victim of abuse and suffers trauma that continuously builds with the pain leading to him lashing out at every source of pain in his life. From the cold opening to the closing credits, the film holds you in its grasp, forcing you to confront the complexities of abuse and trauma. It depicts abuse and bullying as wrong and harmful but reminds us that those who are abusing and bullying are often themselves victims caught in a cycle of abuse, trauma, and pain. The film ends on a bleak but bittersweet note.
SLAPFACE is a film that will stay with me. It has taken root within my psyche. I am a person who has suffered traumatic events and been bullied. All moments have had a lasting impact on my life. I am Non-Binary and Genderqueer, but even I can see myself in Lucas, in that young boy experiencing so much pain and wanting nothing more than to be loved. The film masterfully uses a monster to tell an all too human story.
SLAPFACE is streaming exclusively on Shudder.