Magnolia Pictures // 2006 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // November 12th, 2010
"I think we're all a little off." -- Debbie D.
I have to admit to being a long-time viewer of some of the most vile films cinema has to offer, but even I have my limits. As long as there's a plot and character, I'm fine; without it, I want no part of it. So, while I've worked my way through the work of Jörg Buttgereit (Schramm) and Eric Stanze (Scrapbook), I have no time for fetish horror, a kind of sub-genre that removes all elements of filmmaking to make the work as real and as close to a snuff film as possible. This is the world that director J.T. Petty (Soft for Digging) explores in S&Man (pronounced Sandman), a horror film wrapped up in a documentary that looks at our relationship to horror, voyeurism, and the melding of the two. Conceptually, this is very interesting, but does it work?
Originally, Petty received funding to make a documentary about a peeping tom who stalked his neighborhood as a youth. When the subject -- understandably -- refused to appear on camera, the director had to drastically change direction. He stuck with the idea of voyeurism, but turned the idea inward to the cinematic underground where he cut his teeth and found a community of filmmakers and collectors devoted to the most realistic and disturbing images of death possible. Petty finds a new protagonist in Eric Rost, director of the notorious S&Man series. At first, Rost is open and forthcoming, happy to talk about his project. But as Petty starts trying to get closer and even watch an episode in production, Rost withdraws, leading Petty to believe something very sinister is going on behind the camera.
Until the very last moments of S&Man, J.T. Petty never presents his film as anything but a straight-ahead documentary about underground horror. Interviews with experts sell the reality of the subject. On that level alone, the film works pretty well. It's not a great documentary, but Petty is fair to his subjects and to the films that get made in the underground scene, regardless of the quality or nature of the content. A sexologist and her forensic psychologist husband discuss voyeurism, paraphilia, and the psychology behind the fetishists; while Carol Clover, writer of the seminal horror text Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror, provides insight into these aspects with regard to filmmaking. On a clinical level, all of it is relevant, if not terribly exciting.
The interviews with those involved in the filmmaking process are much more interesting. These people are each ridiculous characters in his or her own way, and they're a lot of fun to watch talk about their work (certainly more fun than watching the work itself). Watching them in action is considerably more enlightening than I expected. This is a much more varied, not to mention more eccentric, group of subjects. Professional scream queen Debbie D. (Cannibal Hillbillies) is the only actress we hear much from, and she has an interesting perspective on her role in the support of some truly bizarre fetishes. Much of her business comes from custom videos. A patron who has an idea sends in about two grand and Debbie D. will die just about any way he want to see. Seeing clips from these films gives me a whole new appreciation for films I once called amateurish. In this world, though, cinematic quality is irrelevant next to the action onscreen, a notion put best by director Bill Zebub (Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist), when he says that he doesn't make movies to add anything to cinema, but to get perverts to give him money. The sentiment may not be very nice, but at least it's honest.
Zebub is one of three directors that Petty speaks to, and it's these people who get to the true heart of Petty's film. Stupid as Bill Zebub's name is, his movies are even dumber. He barely appears to care about his films, but his crucifixion-obsessed, loose, drunken attitude stands in sharp contrast to our next director, Fred Vogel (Necrophagia: Sickcess), founder of Toe Tag Films. Vogel's films are even more depraved than Zebub's, but the guy seems totally together. He expresses his need to work with people he trusts and people who trust him; his wife is a co-conspirator in the mayhem, often on camera. He seems genuinely impressed with how many women write to him asking to be victims in his films, the idea of which surely goes back to many of the associations that Carol Clover describes in her book.
This is where Petty changes things up on his audience, though. Beyond all the subjects of the film, S&Man is about Eric Rost, director of the sadistic and ultimately boring film series that inspired the title of the film. Where Bill Zebub seems like a parody of an actual person, Rost is a fictional character, played by Eric Marcisak. He's not a filmmaker at all, but a real life friend of Petty's whose fantastically convincing performance makes the film. This slice of fiction within an otherwise real documentary is presented perfectly straight, without a hint that it's anything but on the level until the very final shots. Rost is clearly a creep, but the strangely realistic nature of his films and his enthusiasm draws Petty in. His presence dominates the film and, eventually, because of the way the relationship plays out, Petty winds up a character in his own documentary. As Petty gets closer, Rost sees his secret compromised, and their friendship eventually turns hostile. These are the only moments of tension in the film, but they work. By the end, when we understand what's going on; it's strange, unsettling, and pretty effective.
The DVD release of S&Man from Magnolia Home Entertainment is strong on extras, but understandably short on technical prowess. The film takes footage from a large number of very mixed sources. Most of it awful-looking, and there's only so much that can be done to improve how these bottom barrel films look; the new interview footage looks pretty good, though. The sound is similar, but a little better. The 5.1 mix doesn't test your system by any stretch of the imagination, and the surround channels are used mostly for the narration, which is kind of odd, but the audio is consistently sharp.
The extras are where the disc shines, although what you see isn't always very pretty. The two audio commentaries bring very different things to the table. The first is with Petty and Eric Rost with Erik Marcisak back in character as the mad director. The events that conclude the film carry over into a contentious commentary, filled with claims of theft and threats of lawsuits. It's a funny extension of the meta-narrative of the film, but the humor is inconsistent. The second commentary track brings Marcisak back as himself for a more traditional look at the making of the film and their intentions with the concept. Marcisak does not sound nearly as creepy as Rost, but hearing the same voice is no less disconcerting. The complete Episode 11 of Rost's series is included and, while much of the footage has been otherwise incorporated into the feature film, it's interesting to see the whole thing at once. Don't mistake interesting with good, however, because the film is the kind of banal and boring dreck that I hate about the subgenre. It's by design, of course, but it doesn't change the fact that the episode is a chore to watch. We continue with twenty-five minutes of deleted and extended scenes, none of which is essential. Clips from the Toe Tag production, Mortem, more "highlights" from Rost's films, and some additional underground film footage round the disc out.
While intentionally cheap and chock full of brutal, stomach-churning footage, J.T. Petty takes an intriguing concept and turns it into a very interesting film. Even if the project doesn't work smoothly the entire time, I have a lot of respect for what Petty has done. For horror fans with a high tolerance for this visual assault, there is a lot of value in S&Man.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Films