Few types of movies are as fun as those that involve kids beating the ever-loving crap out of monsters…
…Director Nyla Innuksuk must know this, because that’s exactly what they give us in their debut feature, Slash/Back, which just premiered at SXSW.
Written by Innuksuk and Ryan Cavan, Slash/Back is set in Pang, a small town of Inuit people residing on the edge of the arctic “a million miles from anywhere”. Teen girl Maika (Tasiana Shirley) isn’t all that impressed with her heritage and yearns for a life far away from her "crap hole" town. But when aliens arrive and begin stealing the flesh off the bones of townspeople, it’s up to Maika and her friends to take them down, using the hunting skills they’ve been learning all their life.
“Nobody fucks with the girls from Pang”.
I sure as hell wouldn’t!
Playing out a bit like The Goonies meets The Thing, Slash/Back introduces the audience to a cast full of trash-talking, rebellious girls with an attitude that are a blast to watch. Aside from Maika, their unofficial “leader”, there’s shy-ish Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), always in trouble Leena (Chelsea Prusky) and proud Inuit Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), the outcast of the group. They’re bored with their lives in this gorgeous (and I do mean gorgeous) though isolated part of the world, with nothing to do but shoot at cans and dream of a more exciting life. Innuksuk puts us deep in the world of these kids, where the adults are near non-existent except to show up every once in a while and make their lives more difficult.
The beauty of film is that it allows us to place ourselves in the shoes of others and see the world from their point of view—unless you’re that Turning Red review guy—and Slash/Back is a breath of fresh air in exploring a culture that is rarely given the spotlight. This is a coming of age story where the growing up isn’t about becoming an adult or dating or any of the usual stuff we see, but about learning to embrace where you come from. The main conflict of the film may be blood-sucking aliens, but Maika and the others are consistently forced to confront their heritage and what its value truly is.
That’s where the aliens come in.
An invading species that attempts to imitate others by wearing their skin, the thematics at play in Slash/Back aren’t exactly subtle, and they’re not meant to be. These fiends are trying to take the land of these girls and destroy their culture. Ya know, kind of like what white people have done to indigenous people throughout history. Sporting a jacket that reads “no justice on stolen land,” Maika and crew aren’t just fighting creatures from another planet, they’re taking on centuries of oppression. Slash/Back is an inspiring adventure full of heart and pride in who you are. These girls fight back. They take back. And they kick all kinds of ass while doing it.
The girls of Pang bring a house of pain on these aliens.
As for the aliens (or “skins” as the girls call them), Slash/Back delivers some seriously creepy creatures that are “horny for blood”. While we don’t see much of the tentacled monsters themselves (done through less than ideal digital effects), the hosts which they inhabit are terrifying. These things are like shambling, contortionist meat sacks channeling Leatherface with human faces that don’t fit at all, droopy and soulless with eye-sockets as black as night. The film itself never rises to a level of what I would call “scary”, but the invaders which the girls battle are pure nightmares. And, maybe a coincidence but likely not, we generally only see the things inhabiting “whiteness”, such as a polar bear and the few white people around, who just happen to be the biggest assholes in the film.
The problem? There aren’t nearly enough of these monsters.
Frightening as they are, the fear factor of the creatures begins to wear off because if this is an invasion, it’s the most pathetic attempt in alien invasion cinema history. Slash/Back presents an intriguing setup and endearing characters that are a riot to watch when they do get to bring on a beat down, but there just isn’t a whole lot of mayhem to carry the film through a middling second act. Pang more or less becomes a ghost town, and the film struggles mightily to convey the scope of what is occurring. I get that the point is to have the kids on their own, but constantly found myself asking where the adults were if they weren’t already infected and shambling around town. If you came for ninety minutes of little girls hacking up aliens, you’re going to be sorely disappointed in just how little of that there is.
Making the lack of carnage more noticeable is a sluggish pacing and tired energy that makes watching Slash/Back feel a little like a mile-long trek through a foot of snow. On paper, the foul-mouthed jokes probably work, but the delivery from the actors is stiff and unconvincing. It’s as if actors are reading lines rather than performing them. This is Innuksuk’s debut feature, and despite the positives, it often feels that way. Combined with choppy editing and a slower-paced “battle” for the town than audiences may like, Slash/Back is like one of the bodies left behind by the creatures, completely drained.
“Hunting is patience,” but Slash/Back is too patient for its own good.
Low energy or not, Slash/Back still has a strong, beating heart at the center of it and that’s what matters. This is a heartfelt tale about finding strength in community and tradition, and even though it may not have worked for me, I can see plenty of kids looking up to these girls with the same sort of adoration my generation gave to The Monster Squad and The Goonies. Splashes of blood and adult language might make some parents hesitant to unleash this film on their children, but for those less concerned about it, Slash/Back is a solid gateway horror flick sure to leave kids admiring the Pang girls and their culture.
By Matt Konopka