Slapface has its international Première at FrightFest 2021
“You know why we have to do this?” says young adult Tom (Mike Manning) to his much younger, scared-looking brother Lucas (August Maturo) at the very beginning of Slapface. “Are you ready?” And then, the title of writer/director Jeremiah Kipp’s feature (adapted from his 2018 short of the same name) is immediately explained, as Tom delivers a sharp blow with the palm of his hand to Lucas’ cheek, and then Lucas reciprocates, and this exchange of slaps continues and intensifies in rapid, smarting succession. Orphaned after surviving a car accident in which both their parents died, these boys now have only each other, and in their house in the woods on the outer limits of small-town Fishkill, they struggle to go on amid the grief and guilt, having agreed never to discuss what happened on that fateful day. Instead they have the game ‘slapface’, a way of clearing the air between them, finding a focus for their mutual unspoken pain and reasserting their fraternal bond. The game is also, from the offset, a clear signifier of the boys’ deep dysfunction, as they literally beat themselves up over their shared trauma when compassion, understanding and responsible guidance would obviously be of greater help to both of them.
The slapface game is not the only ritual in which the boys engage to displace their sorrow. While Tom takes to drinking as much as his father did (which is to say too much), and temporarily finds solace in a relationship with the more level-headed Anna (Libe Barer) before becoming too much for her (again, as his father was to his mother), Lucas goes alone to Wakefield House, an abandoned asylum in whose grounds he buries a photograph of himself with his mother. “I know you’re still with me, I love you,” he says, cutting his hand so that his blood will drip on her image. No doubt underlying this strange rite and its very particular location is the online research that he did earlier, revealing that Wakefield is said to be the “home of Virago witch”, a figure of local legend and song who is blamed for a number of child disappearances and murders over centuries. Lucas is trying to conjure the spirit of his lost, loved mother – and tellingly, when he is bullied into entering Wakefield by a trio of schoolgirls (Mirabelle Lee, Bianca D’Ambrosio, Chiara D’Ambrosio) and encounters the witch there, the first thing she does is lift him up into a tight motherly embrace.
Slapface is concerned, precisely, with embracing the monstrous. For as Lucas keeps acting out, and getting into trouble with the sympathetic but concerned Sheriff John Thurston (Dan Hedaya), his unruliness is anchored – or exacerbated – by a growing friendship with this creepy mute figure whose sack-like clothes and large bent nose correspond closely to the conventional iconography of the witch in children’s books. It is not long before Lucas’ adventures with this strange crone, as lonely and marginalised as Lucas himself, lead to injuries and deaths, with the blood always left staining Lucas’ hands.
Virago is a shapeshifter, changing in size from one scene to the next, and at times playing the part of Lucas’ mother, at other times replicating the movements (and enacting the darker desires) of Lucas himself. Her very name is suggestive of gender confusion, even dysmorphia, as is the fact that she is played, under all the makeup, by a male actor (Lukas Hassel). Virago’s addled identity matches the multiple, indeterminate rôles played by Tom (brother/father) and Anna (sister and stepmother) in this family left broken by tragedy.
As young Lucas walks a line between good and evil, trying to determine who he is and what he really wants, Slapface offers transgressive rites of passage that blur the supernatural and the psychological. For no matter whether she is a real, malevolent monster or merely an imaginary manifestation of Lucas’ damaged psyche (indeed first seen by him, significantly, as he looks in a mirror), Virago fills the void in Lucas’ wounded, conflicted heart, becoming its hardest, sharpest beats. And so, like the monster summoned in Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket (2017), Virago outplays an angry, off-track adolescent in a violent, self-destructive game where love always loses. Indeed loss is at the very centre of this unsettling, ambiguous affair in which two brothers fight out their festering feelings, in the absence of any healthier form of resolution.
strap: In Jeremiah Kipp’s supernatural psychodrama, an orphaned boy’s grief, guilt and anger find their embodiment in a conjured witch.
© Anton Bitel