A boy and a young man in a two-shot, slapping one another in the face. We later learn, by way of the young man, Tom (Mike Manning, who also co-produced), that this is how he and his younger brother, Lucas (August Maturo) work through their problems. We’ve waded into a troubled family dynamic, further reinforced by the newspaper montage over the credits. Lucas and Tom survived the car accident that killed their parents. Other images from this montage, which eventually bleeds into search results on a computer, exposit a series of crimes attributed to the ‘Virago witch’. There are elements of coming-of-age splashed into what is essentially a monster flick. Slapface tries to make you think about fairy or folk tales.
The film suffers from a lack of subtlety, among other things. When Tom meets Anna (Libe Barer) in a bar, he comments on her tattoo. She has an elephant on her wrist, a souvenir from her time studying abroad in Thailand. Female elephants, she tells Tom, stick together while the males tend to be loners. Cut to Lucas being chased through the woods by three female bullies. Both Lucas and Tom fit the loner bill, as they’ve deliberately set themselves up on the periphery of whatever small town they live near.
As Anna moves in after what looks like a one-night stand, she takes an interest in Lucas. She witnesses a round of what the boys call slapface and, rather sanely, questions the boy. Lucas and Tom keep her at a distance, but she sticks around. She even makes them breakfast after her first night at the house. This developing little family unit is, in any narrative sense, underdeveloped. The presence of Anna is a writer’s convenience.
Lucas spends a lot of time hanging around an abandoned asylum. Early on, we see him burying a photograph and cutting his finger to drip blood over it. This will not be elaborated upon. Eventually, his bullies dare him to enter the apparently derelict facility as a hazing ritual. He finds a branch and swings it around to make it sound like he’s in some trouble. In what is a solid bit of filmmaking, the shuffling of feet makes itself heard under his racket. As he stops, a shrouded figure appears reflected in a nearby mirror. The monster picks him up like a small child and leaves him in the woods.
The monster, who Lucas believes to be the Virago, is a witch. This is never explicitly stated, but the design looks uncannily like a Halloween costume. It also fits, in what I suspect is meant to be a thematic sense, given that Anna is a Wiccan. She tries to bond with Lucas over this fact, as a way to break down his defences regarding the physical abuse occurring in the home. Wiccans, Anna says, do no harm. The monster, on the other hand, will come to do much harm. The Virago becomes protective of Lucas. This first instance occurs when a dog runs out of the woods. The monster slays the animal, before burying it and performing a small ritual with Lucas. There is an atmospheric shot where he and the monster sit on the floor with only an oil lamp between them.
With these pieces in place, the Slapface ticks away as expected. We learn about Lucas’ own violent outbursts from the sheriff played by Dan Hedaya. He is the only recognisable face in a film full of television personalities and the only competent performer, though the material does him few favours. As the Virago’s body count rises, writer-director Jeremiah Kipp leans into the idea that the monster is an externalisation of Lucas’ violent tendencies. There are also gestures towards Anna and the Virago as competing maternal figures, the former tender, the latter vengeful. None of this comes together and, by the time the film arrives at its climactic blood bath, you’ll have guessed at whatever the filmmakers wanted you to feel.
As though those involved understood how unsuccessful they were, the end credits start with a bullying PSA. Not only is this jarring, it brutalises a dead horse. Slapface is a proof-of-concept short stretched to feature length. The ideas the filmmakers want to explore are on the surface, never to penetrate deeper.