On the surface, from its pure and simple, monster-in-the-woods logline, Slapface might sound like another Blair Witch, Slender Man-esque urban legend chiller waiting to happen. Lots of creeping, twig-snapping tension, mysterious whispers in the forest, and a plethora of halloween mask-lead visuals that you might assume will eventually play out like any other cheap Blumhouse clone. It’s a solemn surprise then that the reality is anything but.

Slapface, after all, isn’t the monster, but a highly sinister game, played by two recently-orphaned brothers, struggling to make ends-meet, now on their own in a secluded house on the margins of society. The older Tom (Mike Manning), has turned to drinking to feed his grief, while the much younger Lucas (Girl Meets World’s August Maturo), struggles with loneliness, spending his days wandering the woods, trying (and failing) to escape local bullies.

The only way the boys can connect it seems, is by taking it in turns to aggressively smack each other in the face as hard as they can, using it as a wildly unhealthy, Fight Club-esque way of venting some of the pent up anguish from their parents’ deaths. Something which doesn’t prove enough for the more emotionally volatile Lucas, who starts to channel his grief into summoning a local legend too, setting the mythical ‘Virago Witch’ on any and everyone who threatens his happiness.

Slapface3It’s an unusual beast to wrangle; an incredibly straight-faced, down-to-earth coming-of-age about a great deal of dark and difficult topics, but packaged with all the necessary jumps and bumps you might expect from something much more exploitative. And the truth is, writer-director Jeremiah Kipp’s lean-budgeted drama is a bit of a Trojan-horse of a horror movie, starting in the thick of things as a by-the-numbers chiller, only to very gradually shift gears, landing like a more unvarnished, less hopeful spin on Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.

Kipp understands the symbolic power of a good monster too, and none of that goes to waste here; the Virago Witch is a straight-forward but effective foil, and when he does play the horror card, the atmosphere of her presence alone is enough to unsettle. But ultimately Kipp and his movie are much more interested in the underlying sadness here; the grief and abuse at the heart of the story. And it’s handled not only sensitively, but smartly; the horror serves the drama, never the other way around.

Slapface is heavy, and is all the better for it; despite a tiny budget (which Kipp milks for all its worth), it never once feels cheap in its production or morals. It’s clever, often cruel, but categorically grown-up filmmaking to its core, and Kipp and his team deserve a bright future in genre-adjacent storytelling like this.