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STRIKE IT WITCH
Director: Jeremiah Kipp
Screenplay: Jeremiah Kipp
Starring: August Maturo, Mike Manning, Libe Barer
Review: RJ Bland
There was a belief in the not too distant past that horror movies were empty vessels. Beneath their surface level desire to scare, shock or offend they had very little to offer more discerning audiences. Well, it was a load of pish then and it's a load of pish now. If anything, genre movies give both film-makers and viewers the chance to explore subjects and themes that most other genres would shy away from. Horror makes us face our fears in a controlled environment and part of that involves confronting the dark side of humanity. Part of that can be internal; from the literal fear of our own bodies (often referred to as body horror) to the horror of losing ones mind (psychological horror). And sometimes it can be societal. Films like His House, Carrie, The Invisible Man and Hereditary probe subjects such as poverty, bullying, religion, domestic abuse and grief. Subjects that are usually left alone by most of mainstream cinema, save a few hard hitting dramas. Thankfully, horror is big enough to step up and Jeremiah Kipp's Slapface, which has just had its release on Shudder, delves into some dark topics too.
Pre-teen Lucas (August Maturo) lives with his older brother Tom (Mike Manning) in the middle of nowhere in the home they used to share with their parents, who recently died in a tragic car accident. Although still grieving their loss, the pair are not in the habit of talking about their feelings and instead vent their frustration and anger at the world (and each other) by playing a game called 'Slapface', where they take it in turns to slap each other, with increasing ferocity. Tom is managing to hold down a job to pay the bills and spends the rest of his time drowning his sorrows in the local bar. Lucas has the distraction of neither work nor alcohol and instead he spends his time alone in the woods, or being bullied by a trio of girls who live nearby. One day, inspired by the local legend of the Virago Witch, Lucas heads out to an abandoned building, called Wakefield House, at the edge of the woods that is reputedly where she resides. When he discovers that the local legend is in fact true, he's terrified at first, as you'd expect. He quickly forms a bond with this looming creature, however – albeit with dangerous consequences...
Based on Jeremiah Kipp's 2018 short film of the same name, Slapface is a dark, brooding coming-of-age folk horror that feels like it could exist in the same world as Pyewacket (2017) or more recently, Scott Cooper's Antlers (2021). All three have familial grief and discourse at their core and attempt to marry this with mythic supernatural horror and Slapface manages to confidently deliver on both these fronts.
Like films about cults, folk horror is another sub genre that appears to be on the rise. Since Robert Eggers' The VVitch in 2015, there has been a small glut of films that look to tap into the terrors of legend and folklore. Visually, Slapface couldn't be more modern folk horror. There's an almost fairy-tale quality to it; the washed out, autumnal colours, the sleepy run down rural setting, the undercurrent of grief and loss. And then there's the creature itself – a fantastically realised old crone who looks like she was lifted straight from a Brother's Grimm storybook. Actor Lukas Hassel gives this looming presence a sense of menace – but also somehow manages to instil a modicum of grace and humanity too.
Whilst most of the scares come from the Virago Witch, the true horror of the film perhaps resides in our lead character himself and his relationship with his brother. Sensitively played by August Maturo, Lucas is our eyes and ears for this story and although he's a troubled and awkward kid, he always has our sympathies. Tom Manning is just as compelling as his older brother and this film falls down if there is no chemistry between the pair but thankfully, the opposite is true. Kipp draws a realistically fragile and complex relationship between the two that lurches from disaster to reconcilement at every turn and it's this fractured brotherly love that acts as our unstable anchor throughout the chaos. Their dialogue feels as naturalistic as their performances. Libe Barer, who plays Tom's on-again-off-again girlfriend deserves a mention too – she breathes a welcome air of sanity into proceedings when she's on screen.
As touched upon in the intro, through this dysfunctional family set up we delve into some unpleasant real world issues which sharpen the longer the film progresses. By the end, they are in full focus and any ambiguity is shed. It's an ending which may frustrate some but for others, it will feel as if they've been slapped in the face, in a good way.
Slapface is an ominous folk horror that admirably explores some uncomfortable real world issues. Superlative central performances and a sullen, chilly aesthetic make it ideal for a late winter viewing.
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