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In Nunavut, Teens Go Intergalactic

The new horror film 'Slash/Back' is a welcome addition to a growing genre of Indigenous horror and sci-fi movies.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Teen girls versus bloodsucking aliens is the premise of the new horror film Slash/Back from director Nyla Innuksuk.

It’s a pretty fair fight, because there are few things on the planet more terrifying than teenagers.

Slash/Back falls within the burgeoning world of Indigenous genre cinema. Danis Goulet’s 2021 sci-fi movie Night Raiders and Jeff Barnaby’s 2019 horror film Blood Quantum are among others that spring to mind. Unlike its predecessors, which tended more towards dystopic bleakness, Slash/Back has fun, sass and some serious scares on its side.

Director Innuksuk clearly knows her horror movies and pulls from a number of sources, from classics like The Thing to teen horror movies like Attack the Block. As part of the film’s upcoming run at the Vancity Theatre, the director curated a selection of movies that inspired her. In addition to The Thing, John Carpenter’s classic (which was also filmed in Canada in Stewart, B.C.), Innuksuk chose director Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge.

In some fashion, Slash/Back is a curious combination of both these films, in which teenage terrors meet space monsters.

Sucked into a snowbank

Things get off to a roaring good start when an American scientist gets sucked headfirst into a snowbank by a ropey tentacle. Before you can say holy shapeshifter, a group of friends in the tiny village of Pangnirtung, Nunavut (known to locals as Pang), have run headlong into an intergalactic threat.

Maika (Tasiana Shirley), Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), Jesse (Alexis Vincent-Wolfe), Leena (Chelsea Prusky) as well as Maika’s baby sister Aju (Frankie Vincent-Wolfe) first encounter the alien invaders in the misshapen form of a polar bear.

Polar bears are frightening at the best of times, but there is something particularly unsettling about this one, with its sagging skin and dead black eyes. Even as Aju stands frozen in terror, her older sister leaps into action, shouldering her rifle and taking dead aim at the charging beast, her family’s heritage as great hunters living on in her slender frame.

While Uki maintains that the visitors are in fact Ijiraq, the shapeshifting monsters from Inuit lore, her friends aren’t so certain. While the other girls are getting ready for a party, Uki steals back to the site of the first encounter to do a little light reconnaissance. It’s not long before she stumbles across a writhing mass of pink tentacles that have slithered their way into various local fauna (bear, arctic fox and caribou), turning them into zombified monsters. Soon enough, the zombie animals move into town, taking over the bodies of an unlucky fisher and a racist RCMP officer.

But alien invaders aren’t the only problem to beset the town of Pang. There are other things eating away at the Indigenous community and its people. The ravages of substance abuse, systemic racism, economic precarity and the looming monster of climate change all lurk just under the surface of the story.

Also hanging in the air, as clear as the 24-hour daylight in this northern community, is the ongoing encroachment of outside forces. Alien invaders are only the most recent to show up and start sucking the blood of the local people.

While these deeper and more endemic issues are touched upon, Slash/Back doesn’t get weighed down with them. It stays light and punchy on its feet, dancing about like a prize fighter, even as the threat level ratchets up.

Amidst the movie gore, the struggles of real-life teens

The film does some great stuff with a limited budget to create the alien effects, with sagging skin and lurching, occasionally, upside-down walks that recall the infamous spider crawl from The Exorcist. When the aliens attack at a house party hosted by the local teen heartthrob, it is genuinely frightening. As the kids scatter and the chase takes place in small rooms and hallways with the saggy baggy skinsuit aliens in hot pursuit, it is a genuine heart-in-your throat moment.

But beneath the action and science fiction story, there are a number of more serious issues at play. Namely, the high-stakes stuff of teenage life.

The nuances of how girls talk to one another, moving seamlessly back and forth from annoyance to affection, are well-observed. In some ways, the complexities of friendship are far more frightening than anything outer space can hurl at the teens.

Each of the characters have their own set of problems. Tough-talking Maika is embarrassed by her father’s commitment to the traditional ways of hunting and fishing. Leena’s parents control her every move, keeping close tabs on her cellphone use. Even in this most remote corner of the world, the ubiquity of social media from Instagram to cell service plays an outsized role.

Meanwhile, Uki, with her trickster ways and bendy approach to the truth, has an alcoholic grandmother and largely absent parents. Even the authorities are of little use, as a scene where a white racist cop harangues the kids for simply being kids makes evident.

Smart, funny, scary

The girls are not without a great deal of ambivalence about their community. While Maika makes fun of the Indigenous art that hangs in every house in town, Uki must contend with the idea that her friends think she’s something of a nerd for embracing traditional culture.

The generational divide between kids and parents also informs the action. When the alien begins their rampage, the adults are all busy at the big solstice dance party. It’s up to the girls to save the day. But first they have to deal with even more pressing issues, like who does the local cute boy actually like?

When the friends fall to infighting and the accusations of betrayal threaten to distract them from their mission to save the planet, Maika quite rightly says, “Can we just go back to hunting bloodsucking aliens?”

The film isn’t without a few problems. The acting is a bit on the wobbly side. Innuksuk cast the film through a series of youth workshops held in her hometown of Iqaluit. For most of the cast, this is their first acting experience. The film crew was also largely drawn from the local community. But ultimately, these don’t detract much. The homemade quality of the story makes it that much more compelling.

As the characters alternate between English and Inuktitut and the rhythms of life in a small-town meander along, the story develops a lovely sense of atmosphere, helped along with the remarkable backdrop that is Nunavut. Even the quality of light adds to the action, as everything happens in plain sight in the 24-hour daylight of an Arctic summer.

Slash/Back is a lot of fun. In this nutty old world, no one should turn up their nose at the chance to have a hoot. Innuksuk has fashioned a film that is entirely itself, smart, funny, scary and loaded with wonderful characters that you can’t help but root for. When the friends finally pool their collective resources and leap into action, the aliens don’t stand a chance.

After all, as Maika says, “Nobody fucks with the girls from Pang.”

'Slash/Back' is playing at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver through July 3.  [Tyee]

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