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Shudder Secrets: Slash/Back Explained

It’s been quite a year for Native and Indigenous horror. The wildly entertaining Prey smashed viewership records on Hulu and gave us a new heroine to root for in the Predator universe, Naru (Amber Midthunder). The film features a mostly all-Native cast and rejuvenated a stagnant franchise. On the other hand, this year also marked the passing of Jeff Barnaby, director of the stellar films Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Blood Quantum. Barnaby’s career was one of promise, but he leaves behind two important films to the genre, especially his last.

The Shudder original and festival favorite Slash/Back is another must-watch. In Nyla Innuksuk’s raucous debut, a collective of Inuit girls battles an alien force that takes over animal and human life forms. Yes, this is very much like The Thing, but with an important twist. This takes a familiar story and makes it new through its distinct mode of storytelling and its Indigenous cast and recentered focus. Slash/Back caps a year that’s been a big one for Native and Indigenous stories and further proof that the genre is growing and becoming more inclusive.

Meet the Girls from Pang

Set in the tiny village of Pang in the Canadian Arctic, the film follows a group of tight-knit friends who want nothing more than to leave their hometown. There’s the resourceful Maika, played by Tasiana Shirley. She’s a skilled hunter who learned from her dad. There’s also horror movie buff Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), Uki (Nalajoss Ellswroth), who appreciates life in a small town, including its history and traditions, and Leena (Chelsea Prusky), who has more money than her pals and escapes to Winnepeg once a year with her family.

What works so well here is that each of these characters oozes personality. The young cast turns in quite a collective performance, too. They play off each other well. When they come together to battle a life-threatening alien force, that’s when they really shine. They each have their own talents. Jesse’s horror movie knowledge comes in handy. Maika is the best hunter of the bunch, and Leena at least cares for her friends. Uki’s appreciation for their cultural history has value, too. Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with and maybe, just maybe, the only ones who can save their tiny village.

Slash/Back’s Exploration of Tradition

Though Slash/Back has plenty of horror and even some comedic notes, it’s not without something to say. One interesting thread is the clash of traditions. Uki constantly speaks of the elders, of the stories they told. However, this sets her apart from her group of friends. They don’t want to think of the past or feel trapped by it. At one point, Maika snaps, telling Uki that no one cares about the stories. She even calls them baby stories. The huntress adds that the stories were invented by “old people” because they didn’t have the internet yet.

Yet, Maika is haunted by her past too. Everyone talks about her father, and how good of a hunter he was. This tradition was passed on to her. In contrast, Maika doesn’t want to talk about her father, as if she’s ashamed of him. Perhaps she wants to be known for something else other than hunting, her father, and family traditions. Yet, it’s Maika’s skills with a rifle and Uki’s respect for the old ways that save the girls quite a few times.

Further, by the end of the film, the girls turn into warriors, donning spears and face paint. They learn to embrace their past in order to defeat the otherworldly presence. Maika puts it best when she says, “They came here to hunt us, but what they don’t know is that we’re the best hunters there is.” At this point, the girls, Maika especially, no longer reject their past. This helps them survive and succeed. They stop running from it and learn to use it to survive. This is also a reverse of historical narratives. Instead of facing extinction and erasure, the girls become hunters, embracing their history and the old ways.

Slash/Back’s Not-So-Subtle Nods to The Thing

From the get-go, the references to John Carpenter’s The Thing are quite obvious. For one, the movie is set in the Arctic. In the opening minutes, an American geologist parks his snowmobile to investigate something strange in the ice. It kills him and spreads from there, just like the opening of The Thing, where the alien is found beneath ice and infects the huskie, thus infecting the men in the bunkers.

The references become so obvious that Jesse tells her friends about one of the film’s most iconic moments. She excitedly recounts the famous chest scene and the moment when the alien morphs into a spider head that crawls away. And while Slash/Back doesn’t quite have Rob Bottin-level special effects, it still impresses with its visuals and gore. There are some truly gnarly transformation scenes that should please genre fans.

Slash/Back’s Brillant Use of Setting

Pang as a setting is utilized so well that it becomes its own character. The frequent shots of the tiny village and landscape create a sense of isolation. The characters constantly bemoan the fact they’re stuck there. One of them calls it a garbage dump. Another says as they drive a boat to an island, that she likes watching Pang grow smaller as if it can just fade in the distance. Uki is the only one who defends it. Yet, for adolescents, there’s just not much to do there. The girls spend their time on their phones, liking Instagram photos.

The setting is important here too because it’s something for the girls to rebel against. You can also see it as part of a past that they want to escape, due to historical trauma or due to their fears that if they don’t leave Pang, they’ll never become anything. They envy Leena because she at least gets to visit Winnepeg once a year, something that they can’t afford. They know that she’ll be able to escape, and that’s what they want for themselves, a future that isn’t dictated by their past or their limited resources. Uki might not think it’s so bad, but what is there to do, and what are the future job prospects?

The alien, meanwhile, rocks their world. If you want to take it further, you can view the creature as a colonizer, threatening to devour, erase, and consume the Indigenous people. It’s important to note that one of the first infected is a white police officer, played by Shaun Benson. The first time we meet him, he harasses the girls and their friends for doing nothing other than hanging out.

Overall, Slash/Back is an entertaining film with a lot of heart and gusto. It wears its influences proudly, but to be clear, this is a unique story that places the Inuit characters front and center. The feature tops off a year that’s already been strong for Native and Indigenous storytelling. Let’s keep it coming!

Slash/Back comes to Shudder on November 18. Keep updated on the service’s latest content by following my Shudder Secrets column.

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