Classification: N/A; 86 minutes
Directed by Nyla Innuksuk
Written by Nyla Innuksuk and Ryan Cavan
Starring Tasiana Shirley, Nalajoss Ellsworth and Alexis Vincent-Wolfe
Opens in select theatres June 24; also available on-demand
There are a good number of solid, bloody gags in the new sci-fi thriller Slash/Back. But the best happens right off the top, when director and co-writer Nyla Innuksuk introduces, and then quickly kills off, the one recognizable white actor (Orphan Black’s Kristian Bruun) in her cast. The scene serves as a dual-purpose mission statement. First: In Slash/Back’s harsh world, no one is safe. And second: This isn’t going to be your typical easy-to-market Canadian genre pic.
The first movie to ever be shot in Pangnirtung, Nunavut – an Inuit community of 1,600 people just below the Arctic Circle, accessible only by plane or boat – Slash/Back focuses on a group of teenage girls who battle an invasion of otherworldly bodysnatchers. Innuksuk’s ambitious debut feature aims for a squishy mix of Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad. And occasionally – such as the aforementioned Bruun-led prologue and an electrifying opening-credits sequence touring Pangnirtung set to the music of the Halluci Nation and Tanya Tagaq, the film’s title cards morphing from Inuktitut to English – Slash/Back hits the sweet spot of blood, guts and tweenage ennui.
But the moments between can be rough, the result of a script whose last two acts can’t reach the heights of its enticing conceit, a choppy sense of pacing that speeds up when it should slow down and vice versa, an amateur cast whose rawness is at odds with the story that they are enlisted with telling and a no-frills visual-effects budget that robs the film of its central creature-feature thrills.
There is, though, so much promise in every chilly inch of Innuksuk’s vision, starting with her film’s firm sense of place – the director grew up in Nunavut, dreaming of darkness even when sunlight was 24/7 – and extending to how the director continues horror’s long tradition of sneaking in heavy themes that audiences might otherwise not so readily shoulder.
The most pointed of these is a cutting look at the trickle-down effects of institutional racism, with the film’s young heroes divided as to whether they should take pride in their cultural heritage, as the resourceful Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth) does, or deride it with a defiant sense of self-hate, a stance that the antsy Maika (Tasiana Shirley) resorts to adopting. And then there is the film’s central tension, which Innuksuk places in plain view: It is not as if Inuit people are unfamiliar with fighting off invading forces.
Yet for every keen cultural observation, and for every vicious tip of the hat to the horror classics that came before (these kids are as familiar with the genre’s conventions as Scream’s O.G. slasher scholars), Slash/Back never seems entirely comfortable with itself. It was a well-meaning gambit to cast amateur Nunavut youth as the film’s lead alien-hunters, but the film’s high-concept vision requires a heightened comfort level with the camera – a kind of semi-honed showmanship – that the young performers so far lack, and which Innuksuk was unable to wring out of them.
It is also difficult to inject genuine fright into your largely straight-faced monster movie when the effects teeter between sketchy and goofy – a not-uncommon problem when it comes to Canadian horror in general, but hard to ignore here all the same.
After all its blood is spilled – on perfectly white sheets of ice and snow, of course – Slash/Back still announces the arrival of a major talent in Innuksuk. Here is hoping that she gets to kill bigger and better Canadian actors for many years to come.
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