Where do monsters come from?
I've been trying for ten years to write a follow-up to my popular book The Hallelujah Life, an autobiographical collection of poetry and essays exploring my early life traumas and a dark, graphic account of abuse, sexual violence, and a myriad of losses.
I've often said that I've experienced more sexual violence than tenderness, a fact that was more than a little bit of a factor in my choosing the name "Tenderness Tour" for an outreach event that has become one of my greatest contributions to the world around me.
I've been trying, but I've been failing and failing and failing to write a follow-up to The Hallelujah Life because, quite frankly, I aspire to writing a collection outside the traumas and the dramas of my life and I can't. I simply can't.
Everywhere I look, the trauma is there.
I identified immensely with August Maturo's Lucas, the young boy at the core of writer/director Jeremiah Kipp's fiercely dark yet unflinchingly honest indie horror project Slapface. Maturo, perhaps best known as the precocious Auggie on the series Girl Meets World yet here portraying a character who is a million miles away from Auggie.
Slapface is a horror film, a monster flick somewhat comparable to A Monster Calls in theme but Kipp is perhaps less compromising in his artistic vision and absolutely unflinching in portraying the universe in which he sets Lucas down alongside his older brother Tom (Mike Manning) in an isolated cabin in the woods where they seek to survive the traumas of their childhood largely by perpetuating them in what at times feels like an irrevocable cycle. The two are left alone courtesy of a car accident that claimed the lives of their parents, an ambiguously portrayed tragedy both ended and began cycles of abuse and violence and the impossibility of human connection. Adapted from Kipp's own short film, Slapface takes its name from a ritual shared by the two brothers that seemingly comes during times of great duress where they brutally slap each other back-and-forth with pain obviously inflicted and intentions obvious mainly between the two of them. This ritual, Slapface, is difficult to watch even as it's obvious this is some form of discipline triggered as much by the past as it is the present.
Tom, it would appear, is on his way to the same alcoholic fate that afflicted his abusive father. Lucas, on the other hand, escapes into a fantasy world guided by a local folklore legend involving the Virago Witch (Lukas Hassel), whom he successfully summons one day and whose presence is both extraordinarily frightening yet also strangely compelling and, one might say, absurdly tender in a way that meets some deep need within Lucas that is getting met nowhere else.
The relationships that surround Lucas are oppresively sad. There isn't a healthy human being within his universe, though Kipp infuses Slapface with such an intense emotional realism that nearly all these human beings possess something resembling humanity even in their darkest moments.
Tom is absolutely emotionally unavailable, however, in whatever way that he can he does actually seem to care about Lucas. He simply can't seem to follow through with it effectively and they both carry so much darkness that they've both only learned how to communicate through their pain.
For a few fleeting moments it seems as if Tom may find some peace when Libe Barer's Anna shows up and takes a shine to him and at least tries to show a fondness for Lucas. Barer, who was so astounding in 2021's criminally underseen Disfluency, adds an emotional layer to Slapface that the film desperately needs. We can't help but feel like this relationship is ill-fated, mostly because despite her best of intentions she too is obviously carrying a woundedness that creates far too many obstacles for these relationships to effectively work. Between this film and Disfluency, Barer truly becomes an up-and-coming actress to watch.
Along the way, Lucas is relentlessly bullied by the twins Donna (Bianca D'Ambrosio) and Rose (Chiara D'Ambrosio). Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) is a sometimes girlfriend of sorts for Lucas, though it's only when nobody else is watching otherwise she joins the twins in bullying as much to divert their attention away from her.
Slapface is an immersive film, Dominick Sivilli's cinematography practically drowning us in muted tones and shadows so dark I doubt a lighthouse could pierce its way through. Kat VanCleave's production design bathes us in a melancholy atmosphere where hopelessness feels like it's hanging on the walls of this ramshackle rural cabin where any semblance of life has been seemingly left behind. Barry J. Neely's original music avoids histrionics and caricatures, instead amping up the film's emotional resonance but never playing a false note.
Maturo is mesmerizing here as Lucas, somehow clinging to his childlike tendencies yet so clearly living a life far beyond anything innocent. He doesn't so much give himself to this monster as the monster instead surrenders herself to him as both maternal figure and savage protector. Hassel, a frequent collaborator with Kipp, is nothing short of astounding with a physicality that feels both tender and terrifying.
Mike Manning, also a producer on the film, could have so easily turned Tom into a one-note raging, grieving drunk but instead finds his humanity and occasionally lets that humanity come out to play. It's easy to understand why Anna is drawn to him despite a myriad of red flags. He's an attractive young man, desperately trying to be tender but never really knowing how. Among the supporting players, one must also mention the always welcome addition of Dan Hedaya. Hedaya, despite being saddled with a somewhat underdeveloped character as sheriff, adds depth and meaning and turns in an impressive performance.
I can't deny that on some weird level I truly identified with Lucas, a young boy whose life has seemingly broken him yet who also keeps reaching out with alternating fits of rage and vulnerability. He's the kind of young boy whom you want to reach before it's too late, a disturbing contemplation given so many similar films, A Monster Calls included, that lean gently into the notion that there's always hope and it's never too late.
Kipp, on the other hand, seems to recognize the truth that sometimes we can damage our human beings beyond repair.
Is Lucas beyond repair? Is this fantasy world enough to save him? Will creating this monster keep him from becoming one?
There are so many questions and in a stroke of rather ballsy filmmaking Kipp refuses to give us any easy answers.
At its very core, Slapface is an anti-bullying film that has enough integrity to speak the truths we don't always want to hear. It's uneven in places, perhaps, but for me that only infuses the film with a greater sense of authenticity and honesty.
For those of us who've lived darker lives filled with trauma and/or violence, films like Slapface are essential not because they portray the violence and not because they exploit it but because they remove the stigma around our acknowledging it and owning and fighting like hell from allowing it to define us.
Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. More often than not, life becomes a weird balance between the two and we simply hope it will never completely swallow us up.
Brutal yet beautiful and horrific yet mesmerizing, Slapface is an uncompromising exploration of the impact of bullying and violence that simultaneously recognizes the humanity of its victims and perpetrators while also serving as a reminder that sometimes the ripple effect of bullying means we lose people and we're not getting them back. Currently available for viewing on Shudder, AMC+, and most recently Amazon Prime, Slapface may not be one of the easiest films you'll ever watch but it's most certainly one of the most unforgettable.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic