Expanding a short into a fully-realised film adaptation is an ambitious pursuit. There’s risk involved in developing characters and plotlines enough to warrant a longer story, yet at the same time, this enterprise can yield positive results. Writer and director Jeremiah Kipp successfully turns his original eight-minute short Slapface into a stunning full-length feature American horror film about childhood trauma.
After their mother dies in a tragic car accident, Tom (Mike Manning) becomes a forced guardian to his younger brother, Lucas (August Maturo). The two live far from town in the woods where Tom makes Lucas engage in an abusive hitting game called Slapface. After sleeping with Tom, young woman Anna (Libe Barer) begins staying at their run-down residence in the woods and attempts to take on a motherly role to the brothers.
Upset by the interloping Anna as well as his uneasy dynamic with Tom, Lucas befriends the dangerous monster Virago (Lukas Hassel) inside the forest, a monster that will stop at nothing to protect the grief-stricken young boy.
Slapface only uses a few locations, yet it feels intimate and the lack in variety of location shots do not detract from letting the impactful themes flourish. There’s a lot to be said about how the filmmakers effectively apply horror conventions to create a breathing, sinister atmosphere. Intimate close-ups, follow shots through the dense forest, and well-timed jump scares all work in tandem with the sinister beats.
The actors all exhibit incredible chemistry with one another. Ultimately though, child actor August Maturo carries the film’s emotional core. The ensemble casting is sublime, but the creators struck gold placing Maturo in the lead role.
Maturo plays the title role of Lucas with gravitas, and his natural acting talent and Kipp’s direction culminate in a powerful performance. As Lucas, he channels anguish masterfully. Lucas releases his suppressed emotion about the loss of his mother and his brother’s emotional abuse through acting out, fights, and galvanizing crying scenes. Maturo elevates the believability of these cathartic, confusing feelings adolescents experience after a trauma.
The film divides its time well between forming three-dimensional characters and hitting intriguing story beats. Slapface alternates between showing the parallels between the creepy witch in the woods with the monstrous behavior on display in human characters such as Tom’s sibling cruelty and his bullying of twin teens Donna (Bianca D’Ambrosio) and Rose (Chiara D’Ambrosio). Slapface does an excellent job juxtaposing how Lucas feels safer spending time with a beastly folklorish monster than with his own brother.
Cinematographer Dominick Sivilli preserves the continual sense of ethereal horror. Long overhead shots emphasize the forests’ imposing size. The film induces fright when the camera peers around corners inside the brothers’ shadowy home. Darkness encroaches upon every scene, never providing a relaxing moment for viewers.
Slapface strikes the balance between realism and fear of the unknown, resulting in a great horror story. Enhanced from the bones of a haunting short, the film manages to cultivate further terror. Slapface is a harsh, disorienting film horror aficionados should certainly watch.
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