Slice Trailer

You can see what the filmmakers are going for. In fact, it’s so clear that it makes it all the more frustrating that writer/director Austin Vesely’s feature debut, Slice, keep missing the mark even as it bombards us at every turn with characters, story turns, jokes, and horror movie tropes, all arranged by someone who has watched hundreds — maybe thousands — of scary movies and not much else.

The result is a work that is whole-heartedly ambitious in terms of its scope — a pizza place built atop a gateway to hells is admittedly a wonderful idea — but so many other elements (character development, creatively conceived special effects, pacing) are left so far out of the mix that the film slogs along, feeling uninspired and overlong, which is tough to do with a film that barely crosses the 80-minute mark.

Prior to Slice, Vesely has best been known for helming music videos for Chance the Rapper and many of his label mates, which is why I was genuinely stunned that the movie’s pacing seemed so off. Jokes would be uttered, followed by a long pause, which I can only assume was the filmmakers giving the audience time to recover from laughter that never materialized. The humor is broad, loud and safe when it should be biting and edgy, quick and painful. With a cast that includes reliable comedic talent like Paul Scheer (as Jack, the owner of the aforementioned pizza place), Chris Parnell (as the town mayor), and a brief but funny cameo by Hannibal Buress, we know that the talent was there to take hold of even the most basic premise. But it never really happens to any degree.

The set up and premise of Slice is solid. The film opens with a shot of a billboard welcoming us to the town where our story takes place and letting us know what the local population is, with a separate line informing us that the ghost population is 30,000. So we immediately know that this is a version of reality where the supernatural (ghosts in particular) are accepted as part of one’s day-to-day living. The ghosts in question aren’t particularly threatening or scary; they’re just ragged-looking, slightly paler version of the living that have a physical form and can do everything humans can do — from taking drugs to holding down a job. They are contributing members of society, despite their particular brand of disability.

When a pizza delivery driver named Sean (played by the filmmaker) has his throat slit while making delivery in Ghost Town (the ghosts’ section of the larger town), the police begin looking into the possibility that either they have ghost killer on their hands or a suspect in a previous string of murders of Chinese food delivery drivers has returned. The suspect in question is Dax (Chance the Rapper, using his real name Chance Bennett), who just happens to be a werewolf that rides a scooter. Slice features several different storylines, all covering various aspects of the murder (which soon becomes plural when more employees of Perfect Pizza begin getting knocked off), the town’s spooky history, and various characters following their own leads on this serial killer.

Naturally, Dax is looking to clear his name, so he figures out the killer’s true identity and motive fairly quickly; there’s also resourceful local reporter Sadie (Rae Gray) doing her own digging; and a former pizza place employee, Astrid (Zazie Beetz of Deadpool 2 and Atlanta), who loses someone to the killer early on and wants to do some straight-up revenge killing. Least effective in solving crimes or being interesting in general are the local police who seem intent on pinning the murders to Dax and calling it a day. Also thrown into the town’s mix are a small group of protesters intent on preserving an ancient burial ground to keep the area’s supernatural elements hopping.

For those wondering if Chance the Rapper can act, the answer is an unqualified “Yes, he can.” He’s one of the few actors in Slice who isn’t playing to the third balcony, even when he does finally turn into a werewolf. He has a charming, naturalistic approach to Dax that makes makes good on the potential she showed when he hosted Saturday Night Live last year, in terms of both his ability to create a character and as a comic performer. Beetz’s Astrid is meant to come across is slightly unhinged, and she plays it with wild-eyed abandon. Scheer may not be required to show much range in most of what he’s done, but almost without fail he ends up being the funniest person in any given scene. At least we had that to look forward to.

I did like the way Slice drifts from place to place within the town under siege, with various characters taking on the role of “hero.” But it’s also this lack of a central figure to bond with and enter the strange goings on through that is one of reasons it’s difficult to connect with the material. There are some attempts by filmmaker Vesely to build a metaphor around the various power struggles going on in the town, especially early in the movie when the mayor finds it a little too easy to point the finger at the ghosts for the murders. Nothing brings a community together faster than having a common enemy, even if that enemy hasn’t done anything wrong. Even if Vesely didn’t intentionally set out to make the film political, the hints of topicality are sprinkled throughout without ever really committing to it in any kind of impactful manner.

And for a film called Slice, the movie is decidedly non-bloody. With works that dabble in horror, it’s easy to forgive bad jokes or weak writing if the gore factor is high. But no such luck here, beyond a few cut throats (one of which is cut on the side, causing the victim’s head to lob to the side in one of the film’s few genuinely amusing site gags). What Slice does best is offer a bit of hope for the acting career of Chance the Rapper, and confirmation that folks like Beetz and Scheer are really wonderful at what they do, even if the material doesn’t rise to the level of their strengths. Beyond that, the movie is something of a disappointment.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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