Horror Needs to Break Some of its Traditions: ‘Slash/Back’ Can Show Us How
Emerging director Nyla Innuksuk is turning some heads with their Inuit coming-of-age sci-fi horror movie Slash/Back, a fun and intelligent story that features kids from the hamlet of Pangnirtung. Or as the kids call it, Pang. Maika is a teen girl who feels weary of living under the thumb of her oppressors and in a community too small for her liking, until a life-form crash-lands in the mountains across from her town and threatens the lives of her and her friends.
What I find the most endearing about this is how it explains the absence of parents from the immediate goings-on of Pang. Maika and her friends Uki, Leena, and Jesse run into a kind of primal alien gradually taking over the wildlife around them in an attempt to survive on their planet and potentially spread its footprint there to establish a more permanent residence. But it happens to do this on the same day as the hamlet’s community dance for the adults and parents of Pang, where most of them get historically sloshed or otherwise unreachable by their offspring.
Maika and Uki decide to take matters into their own hands and run into some wonderfully creepy possessed (perhaps inhabited is a better word) townspeople, already tainted by the alien who uses bodies as husks to survive and procreate. The inhabited bodies stumble around as if drunk, struggling to find footing but when it gets close unclassifiable tendrils snake out to drain the blood from its victims. The influence of Carpenter’s The Thing is probably the first thing you’ll notice, and gets a nice nod in dialogue between the girls who fight the creature to take their land back from an unknown invader. Uki talks of the Ijiraq, a creature who shapeshifts and abducts children as a figure to compare the threat, but to an incredulous audience of course.
The mix of practical and computer generated effects blend really well together and in the beautifully remote setting of Nanavut serves to complement the movie’s already opulent although barren landscape. The cinematography from Guy Godfree is used well enough to make you think this cozy picturesque community of Pang wouldn’t need that much force to become overtaken. But the residents of Pang are far tougher than how secure their hamlet looks.
The strengths of Slash/Back come from the girls of Pang and their urgent industriousness. Familiarity with horror and science fiction tropes arm them with the mental preparedness to approach something so weird and out of this world with a thought-out plan, and choose to arm themselves with what they have. Their efforts equate to more than simple survival tactics; the girls’ recognition of how their antagonists predatory instinct to separate their group pay off when they choose to divide and conquer rather than launch a full-frontal assault, which works to defy the horror survivor tropes the girls would fall into if this were more of a passive genre outing. They all have a deceptive intelligence to them, despite another trope of falling prey to hormonal susceptibility.
The film does focus entirely on Pang’s adolescent population, parents and elders residing on the boundaries of every encounter. Some would find the performances varying across the young cast but there’s an honesty to their portrayals that make them feel real. The threat of defeat looms larger because of this, not to mention amplified when they are essentially on their own against an unknown intergalactic anomaly. Who would believe them if they told anyone what was happening anyway? They’ve seen those movies, and we have too.
But it’s their need for victory against these tropes they’re so familiar with that also threaten to recalibrate their grounded nature in Pang away from the values they hold dear. This deck of tropes they know is populated with archetypes, clichés, and tired attitudes surrounding self that is so stacked against them, so when they push back against that which holds them back this includes the knowledge they possess of genre conventions just as much as the hostile aliens that threaten them physically. This is what makes what follows so cathartic in the final act. Maika, Uki, and Leena simply reject all of the above in favor of their own pursuit, evolving their own real and fleshed-out identities in the process.
They’re not only represented faithfully as indigenous youth but also as people learning how to grow into themselves. Their personalities display an impressive depth, and Innuksuk’s recognition of that extends with them being fully aware of numerous threats to their culture on the outset. But there have always been threats, and these girls have moved past lament in the face of constant menace to instead cultivate their own rebellion of it. In their rise to face off against the extra-terrestrial threat, taking a sharp & decisive lead, you can’t help but feel confident in their vision for the future. One thing’s for sure: we’re going to want to see these girls in action again soon.
Slash/Back makes its premiere as a Shudder exclusive starting Friday, November 18th.