There isn’t a town quite like Kingfisher, nor is there a movie quite like Austin Vesely’s “Slice.” With his feature-length directorial debut, the longtime Chance the Rapper’s collaborator has concocted a world where ghosts co-exist alongside humans and a werewolf is on the loose, yet Kingfisher still feels like a real town, thanks in part to wonderful turns from Zazie Beetz, Paul Scheer, and Rae Gray. Although it falters at time, “Slice” is a funny and campy homage to ’80s horror, mashing together Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with “Stranger Things” and “Riverdale,” often with satisfying results.
Since 2012, Vesely has collaborated with Chance the Rapper on several music videos, including “Juice,” “Everybody’s Something,” and “Angels,” which features Chance standing on top of a Chicago subway car. With “Slice,” they’ve created a black comedy with horror elements that seems destined to become a stoner classic. With memorable characters, an iconic wardrobe, and quotable dialogue, “Slice” contains all of the elements that promise to reward multiple late-night viewings, particularly ones done with a group of friends and a lot of pizza.
Kingfisher, the town at the center of “Slice,” is a strange one. It boasts a population of 40,000 ghosts, remnants of the Halycon Asylum, which one stood at the center of town. The ghosts ran rampant, haunting and terrorizing, until the mayor (Chris Parnell) decided to carve up the city into two halves: Kingfisher, for the living, and Ghost Town, for the undead. The city found peace … and then pizza delivery boys started being murdered.
In a cheeky director’s cameo, Vesely plays Sean, a delivery boy for Perfect Pizza and boyfriend to Astrid (Beetz), whose death kicks off “Slice” and sets the film’s central mystery into orbit. In a quest to avenge her boyfriend’s death, Astrid whips out her satin Perfect Pizza jacket and returns to her old job, a dingy pizza place owned by the clueless Paul (Scheer), looking for answers.
At the same time, intrepid and relentless local reporter Sadie (Gray) discovers the pizza-delivery murders aren’t the city’s first brush with death. Six Chinese food delivery boys were murdered many years back, and what’s more, the Yummy Yummy Chinese food restaurant once stood on the same ground as Perfect Pizza. Sadie, who also serves as the film’s narrator, would feel right at home in an episode of The CW’s teen hit “Riverdale” as she tries to tease out the town’s secrets, pulling the film’s plotlines and characters into a cohesive whole.
Photo by Danielle Alston, courtesy of A24
Sean’s murder also coincides with the return of a werewolf named Dax (Chance the Rapper), who was also spotted at the scene of each original murder. Maligned by the police and mistrusted by Sadie and Astrid, Dax is the prime suspect for the Perfect Pizza Murders, except Kingfisher is a small town, and small towns are often home to a lot of dark and hidden secrets — including a gateway to hell, and some sinister and shady characters who will do anything to open it up.
At its core, “Slice” is a fresh unique spin on the battle between good and evil in a small town. Bolstered by tongue-in-cheek humor that’s both campy and sharply funny, it features strong performances by veterans like Scheer and Parnell, and newcomers Gray and Beetz. Although Chance’s Dax is elusive for much of the film’s first half, he soon becomes the film’s reluctant hero, exuding a sweetness that belies his more dangerous side. Throughout “Slice,” Dax is urged to become violent to save the day, but he insists he’s “not that kind of werewolf.” It seems a good parallel for Chance, who seems slightly unsure of himself on camera at first, but soon can’t deny his own on-screen charisma.
The parallels between “Slice” and “Stranger Things” are undeniable, beyond the small role played by the show’s star Joe Keery. The score, composed by Nathan Matthew David and “Black Panther” composer Ludwig Göransson, adds to the retro vibe, with pulsing synthesizer beats that recall the undeniably catchy opening theme of “Stranger Things.” Thanks in part to Brandon Riley’s cinematography, which is a perfect blend of smoky, slick streets and sharp pops of color, one could easily imagine both the kids of Hawkins trying to solve the film’s central mystery, as well as Michael Jackson’s dancing zombies shuffling down the sidewalks.
Despite a short run time that taps out at 83 minutes, “Slice” still struggles with pacing as the film’s complex plotlines sometimes run out of gas before switching streams. Despite this, Vesely is able to correct course before the audience is completely taken out of the narrative. “Slice” is a promising start to Vesely’s film career, which seems poised to grow and continue to offer more warped Wes Anderson-esque tales in the future.
“Slice” is now available on VOD.