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There’s probably nothing better than a well-crafted piece of cinema designed to give viewers a good jolt of adrenaline, a case of the goosebumps, and ultimately leave them thinking once every last scare has run its course. Shudder’s latest original film, Slapface, is precisely one of those rare gems well worthy of a good night in on the couch, with the lights off and popcorn in hand.
Operating with the seemingly simple premise, the film focuses on two brothers who are left to fend for themselves after the death of their parents when the youngest brother encounters an ominous presence in a nearby forest. What follows is a tragic tale of loss, social isolation and dysfunction that operates on several layers and leaves the audience able to draw their own conclusions about the true source of the horror they witness.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the Emmy Award-winning Mike Manning (Teen Wolf, Son of the South), who not only stars as the film’s ill-equipped older brother Tom, but also produced the film and helped writer/director Jeremiah Kipp bring his 2017 short film to life as a full-length feature.
Manning explained the evolution of the project from Kipp’s short film of the same name. “I was actively looking for a horror film to produce,” he reveals. “And [co-producer] Joe Benedetto connected me with Jeremiah, who let me read the script. I watched the short film and I said, ‘Okay, I could tell that you did this on a shoestring budget, but I can definitely tell that you understand story and you have a very clear vision for this.’
“You know, he’s such a fan of horror. Such a fan of stories… a lot of his story is based on his own experiences living with his grandparents near the woods. It is also his fascination with Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Frankenstein – any horror films that he experienced growing up. It was a seamless partnership right away.”
Taking its name from a game played between the two brothers where each take turns slapping each other’s face with increasing ferocity, Slapface is a tool “also used for reprimand” by Manning’s character Tom.
“It sort of encapsulates Tom’s approach to his relationship with his younger brother, Lucas,” Manning explains. “I genuinely think that he thinks that he’s doing the right thing. He was thrust into this guardian role for his brother, without any of the resources or roadmaps that a parent sort of develops over time.”
Manning’s role, however, was not always conceived as Lucas’ older brother and in the original short-film the role was first portrayed as the boy’s abusive father. When Manning came on board the project, however, he pitched the director an alternate vision which plays well into increasing the tragic circumstances surrounding the boy’s upbringing.
“Originally the script that was written,” he explains, “and you’ll see this in the short film, it’s a story between father and son. I said, ‘Jeremiah, I really want to play Tom. I want to play his father figure, like how do you feel about him being an older brother?’
“And I sort of gave him my pitch. I said, ‘ You know, he’s an older borther. He’s an alcoholic, he’s sort of a deadbeat. He has all the same attributes as the father as he was written, but wouldn’t it be much more tragic if he was an older brother doing the best he could, ill-equipped for parenthood?’”
This troubled pairing, and Tom’s floundering and misguided attempts to help manage his brother’s escalating grief and compounding anger soon prove to be completely inadequate, when Lucas comes face-to-face with the mysterious and violent Virago witch. Whether a figment of Lucas’ own deeply troubled mind, or a malevolent entity manifested by his tragic circumstances, the nature of the film’s antagonist remains intentionally ambiguous and allows audiences to form their own opinions.
“We were very purposeful in not making a decision one way or another,” he says. “I think that if audiences turn off Shudder or leave a theatre or wherever they may be experiencing our film, and they are talking about whether or not the witch is real, I think we’ve done our job.
“I think there’s something really interesting about the idea that this little boy, on one hand, this boy is capable of these bad things, in terms of his trauma and grief that he’s caring for someone. On the other hand, his trauma and grief have sort of materialised into this giant witch creature that maybe only he can see, and I think that both of them are really very interesting.”
Audiences will be surprised to learn that the young star responsible for bringing Manning’s onscreen brother to life is none other than the Disney Channel’s August Maturo, best known for his work on Girl Meets World. Maturo is no stranger to darker fare, however, having also made his big-screen debut in The Conjuring franchise spinoff The Nun.
“It was interesting,” Manning says of Maturo’s casting, “because, you know, myself, Jeremiah Kipp the writer/director and then our casting director Caroline Sinclair, we all sort made lists about who we saw in the role of Lucas, and August Maturo was at the top of all of our lists…
“So when we reached out to him, he just so happened to be looking for a project just like this, that would be a departure from the Disney Channel. And he jumped, jumped in headfirst.”
Rounding out the cast is another familiar face, none other than screen veteran Dan Hedaya as the local Sheriff John Thurston. With a long list of screen credits dating back to the ‘70s, audiences may recognise Hedaya as either Alicia Silverstone’s overprotective father from the cult classic Clueless or as the detective in The Usual Suspects.
“It was interesting how Dan Hedaya, with his skills and career, how was he going to react to our Disney star turned horror actor August Maturo,” Manning says. “And it was the scene in the jail cell where they’re sitting across from each other, looking at each other and they started mirroring each other, and I was just sitting there watching, thinking, ‘This was really cool.’”
Dark, chilling, and a well-put-together tale that plumbs the depths of grief and isolation, Slapface is streaming now exclusively on Shudder.