Making movies is grueling, expensive, and time-consuming work. But, under the right circumstances, it can also be a lot of fun. The intangible joy that bleeds through onto the screen when a cast and crew are having a blast on set can go a long way toward redeeming an otherwise flawed production. And Slice, A24’s new horror-comedy released in a midnight VOD drop more reminiscent of a surprise album release than a traditional theatrical rollout, has energy and charm to spare. Which is a good thing, because that charisma holds together a film that’s otherwise all over the place.
Newcomer Austin Vesely directs from his own script, set in a fictional anytown called Kingfisher (in fact Joliet, Illinois) that doubles as thin social commentary on segregation and racially-motivated scapegoating. Vesley asks viewers to accept that this is a world where ghosts, werewolves, and witches are real—no big deal, a baseline ask for any psychotronic film—and then presents a town whose substantial ghost population has been ghettoized into a single neighborhood, called, appropriately enough, Ghost Town. To add insult to injury, after all the ghosts were rounded up, a strip mall was built on top of the asylum from whence these restless souls came. And Vesely just kind of leaves it at that. That’s typical of the world-building in the film in general, which is appealingly nutty but consistently underdeveloped; even a Ghostbusters-style montage of daily life in this bizarre ’burb would have gone a long way toward making Kingfisher seem more real.
Instead, Vesely keeps introducing characters, some of which get satisfying arcs, and some of which don’t. At the center of the ensemble are Jack (Paul Scheer), owner of Perfect Pizza Base, the pizza shop currently occupying a storefront in the aforementioned cursed strip mall, and Astrid (Zazie Beetz), a former employee of the shop who grabs her bomber jacket and comes back to work after her ex Sean (Veseley) is murdered on the job. The cops and Kingfisher mayor Tracey (Chris Parnell) blame the incident on a literal lone wolf, werewolf Dax (Chance Bennett, a.k.a. Chance The Rapper), who’s been an outcast ever since a similar series of murders at his fast-food delivery job, Yummy Yummy Chinese Food, a few years earlier. But as the bodies of her co-workers continue to pile up, Astrid becomes ever more determined to uncover the truth about Sean’s death, and how local ghosts’ rights group Justice For The 40,000 might be involved.
All these threads come together in the character of Sadie (Rae Gray), a reporter for the local newspaper whose dogged persistence keeps the investigation into the so-called “pizza murders” open—and, for that matter, the plot moving. Sadie is there for the final confrontation in the parking lot of Perfect Pizza Base, and so are Astrid and Dax. But other characters, like Joe Keery’s oblivious photojournalist Jackson and Y’lan Noel’s slick drug dealer Big Cheese, aren’t red herrings so much as casualties of the overly ambitious plot. The supernatural elements are similarly superficial, particularly an immediate resurrection gag that’s good for a couple of laughs, but ultimately undermines the stakes. Why does it matter if people get murdered, if they can just get up and go about their business as ghosts? They’d have to move, sure. But it’s not like they’re out of a job or anything.
There’s a lot going on in Slice, and individually, many of the elements are quite endearing. Beetz and Keery signed on for the film just before Atlanta and Stranger Things made them stars, always a sign of a savvy casting department. The costumes, heavy on embroidered silk, are bold and stylish. Some of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, like one character’s wistful, “Goodbye, Chinese-food werewolf,” as Dax rides off into the proverbial sunset. (Since we’re all wondering, Bennett’s easy charisma only partially translates into acting chops.) The CGI is minimal, and the effects makeup sparingly applied and Thriller-esque. The score, from Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) and Nathan Matthew David (Angie Tribeca), is a cheeky, if somewhat heavy-handed, nod to ’80s synth masters.
All in all, everyone’s having fun and fully committed, with the more experienced cast members, like Beetz and Scheer, cheerfully keeping their scenes and scene partners on track. The acting is hammy, but intentionally so, as is the crude, greasepaint-and-baby powder makeup on the ghosts. Clearly, Vesely has pushed the stylization of the piece as far as it can go in order to compensate for Slice’s low budget. And that’s really the only way this production could have gone. But with so many elements in play, the effect is like putting a dozen toppings onto a pizza. Each one might taste good on its own, but with so much piled on, it’s inevitably going to come out under-baked.