Going into the latest Shudder original, Slapface, I wasn’t sure what to expect. On paper, it reads like another movie about a witch who lives in the woods. Is it folk horror? Occult horror? Something else entirely? Upon screening this one, I was pleasantly surprised. Written and directed by Jeremiah Kipp, this gem has a lot to say about the consequences of toxic masculinity and bullying. Whether or not the witch is real doesn’t matter as much. The film’s ambiguity works just fine. The real horror is the violence that plays out at home and the consequences of two brothers’ inability to express their emotions or connect with each other.
This is a smart feature by Kipp, one with a lonely, tortured boy at its center, who not only deals with a violent older brother but also struggles to process the trauma of his parents’ untimely death. There’s a lot at play in Slapface, so let’s dig in.
Slapface and A Witch Named Virago
The opening credits begin with images and text from a book about a witch. A nursery rhyme-like sentence says of her, “Then she was a breeze, then she was a beast, killing the parents of the little boy.” These haunting images and spooky words are followed by newspaper clippings about missing children and murdered parents. One headline quotes a child saying the witch made him do it. It is a cool set-up that establishes the urban legend within the film. Is there a witch that lives deep in the woods and encourages kids to kill their parents? Maybe, maybe not. It all might be in the mind of the protagonist.
Named Virago, the witch apparently haunts the forest surrounding the town. The protagonist, Lucas (August Maturo), accidentally summons her when he accepts a dare to venture into the woods and roams her apparent house, or some abandoned house, anyways. The name of the witch here is important. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll discover that virago means a female warrior or a woman who has excessive masculine traits. In other definitions, it’s defined as a bad-tempered woman. This is important because the witch eventually kills, lashes out, and encourages Lucas’ worst traits. She possesses some of the ugliest and unhealthiest characteristics of hyper-masculinity.
Further, the witch isn’t the only type of virago in the film. Twins, Rose (Chiara D’Ambrosia) and Donna (Bianca D’Amborisa), torture Lucas. At one point, they hold him captive and threaten to strip him. There’s nothing redeeming about these two at all. Lucas’ girlfriend, however, the endearing Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), hangs out with them and acts nasty in front of them. The twins bring out Moriah’s worst traits, just as the witch brings out Lucas’ ill-temper. It’s unclear what Lucas even did to deserve any of this physical and emotional violence if anything. Yet, he desperately wants to be part of their clique because he has no other friends.
Exploring Toxic Masculinity in Slapface
After Lucas’ parents died in some sort of car crash, his brother, Tom (Mike Manning), raises him. Tom is an alcoholic who plays a game called slapface, first shown in the film’s opening minutes. The guys take turns smacking each other in the face, harder each time. At one point, Tom describes slapface as a game to “clear the shit away,” meaning something to numb the pain, to help them forget about their parents’ death, just like drinking. Obviously, this isn’t a healthy way to process emotions. Instead of talking about anything, they hit each other, or Tom drinks.
Additionally, Tom offers some awful advice to Lucas. At one point, he tells Lucas to let Moriah chase him instead of going after her. Lucas snaps back, “Stop talking like dad,” indicating their father also had abusive behavior. This is confirmed much later in the film. In another scene, when a mouse gets into the house, Lucas bludgeons it with a frying pan, whacking it repeatedly, while Tom laughs and says, “You picked the wrong house, little guy.”
Several scenes show that Tom’s awful behavior wears off on Lucas. But he also fights it. He doesn’t want to be like his brother or father if he can help it. There are also very, very small glimpses of Tom’s softer side. At one point, he hugs Lucas and says, “We’re all we’ve got, man.” If only Tom expressed this side more.
Positive Feminine Power
Slapface contains several scenes of toxic masculinity. However, positive female forces counter this. Tom’s girlfriend, Anna, played by Libe Barer, who co-wrote the script, expresses general concern for Lucas especially. When she meets Tom, she explains the tattoo on her arm of an elephant. She mentions that female elephants band together to protect their offspring, while males go off and roam. Later, she tells Lucas that she’s a witch, but a good kind, a Wiccan. She also wears a pentagram necklace. This is an example of a witch being associated with positive female energy, unlike Virago.
Anna is a protective sort of force within the home, trying her best to counter Tom’s awful temper and shield Lucas from it. She’s also the first to really listen to him about the witch in the woods, and she doesn’t quite dismiss it, unlike others. Moriah too maintains a positive influence in Lucas’ life, offering him a genuine relationship, at least when she’s not around the twins. She’s much more conflicted than Anna, but less harsh than the twins, especially when she’s not around them. Her main flaw is that she gives in to those violent urges when she succumbs to peer pressure. While Anna generally serves as a positive feminine force for good, Moriah has both good and shades of Virago within her.
Perhaps most interesting is the witch itself. Yes, it kills, ravages Lucas’ house, and seemingly shows no remorse. But it offers a few moments of tenderness, even hugging Lucas at times when he has no one else to turn to. He’s convinced the witch is his friend, for better or worse. Very little backstory is given about this witch, other than the opening, but it’s not really needed. The film works well enough without that.
The Ending of Slapface Explained: Does the Witch Actually Exist?
The film’s ending is ambiguous and bloody. Before it happens, Sheriff Thurston (Dan Hedaya) asks, “Are you the monster, Lucas?” The kid doesn’t respond. The conclusion opens this possibility even more. Perhaps the witch is a manifestation of Lucas’ worst traits, his brother’s toxic masculinity, and the results of bullying. Perhaps it’s his version of revenge. That’s up to the viewer to decide. Regardless, Lucas is an anguished boy, unable to fully cope with losing his parents at a young age. So it would make sense that he would create an imaginary friend, based on the town’s urban legend. What else can he do when he has no other friends and his brother wants to smack him in the face instead of talking things out?
Regardless of how you read the ending, Slapface is a powerful film. Maturo especially gives a moving performance as a kid with deep emotional scars whose only true friend may be a vengeful witch in the woods. You really feel for him. This film hits at some heavy themes, and its portrayal of toxic masculinity is striking. There are real consequences to guys bottling up their emotions. This is a smart and surprising film worthy of a watch.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.