Everything has its extremes. From food so spicy it will have you walking like a cowboy for a month to energy drinks loaded with five kinds of experimental stimulants (none of which are approved for human consumption), people are always finding ways to push the proverbial envelope, and, in horror cinema, nowhere is this “more is more” doctrine more apparent than in the alternative/indie underground. Here is where filmmakers thumb their noses at Hollywood gloss, making up for their budgetary restraints with graphic violence, lurid sexual situations, and a utilitarian sense of realism. It’s this sub-genre that serves as the subject for J.T. Petty’s (Soft for Digging/The Burrowers) fascinating and ingeniously constructed 2006 “documentary”, S&Man; a film that’s both a highly engrossing look at extreme horror cinema and a thought-provoking and riveting thriller.
The film opens with Petty discussing the links between voyeurism and horror cinema, interspersing scenes from Michael Powell’s classic Peeping Tom with his own recollections of a real life peeping tom who used to videotape his neighbors and was originally going to serve as the subject of Petty’s documentary. When the peeping tom decides he no longer wants to be filmed, Petty is forced to find his story elsewhere, delving into the world of underground horror cinema, where he meets and interviews an eclectic and decidedly eccentric collection of individuals who make everything from snuff-style home invasion flicks to simulated rape movies.
It’s while scouring the bins at New Jersey’s annual Chiller convention that Petty meets Eric Rost, an affable young man peddling his own series of films, S&Man (pronounced Sandman), and decides to interview him. Eric’s films aren’t quite as extreme as, say, Bill Zebub’s laughably inept “Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist” or Toe Tag Film’s repellent collection of ersatz snuff movies, but there’s something about them that piques Petty’s curiosity. Each volume in Eric’s series focuses on the stalking and killing of a single victim, and, while amateurishly filmed and hastily cobbled together, their impact cannot be denied. Petty sets up a series of meetings with Eric in hopes of watching this burgeoning artist at work, however Eric is very guarded when it comes to his process, and refuses to offer satisfying answers to any of Petty’s questions about the films. As Petty grows more insistent, Eric grows more resistant, and Petty soon discovers that Eric’s movies are much more than they appear to be.
S&Man is a very clever and absorbing film that deftly manages to combine two very disparate styles of filmmaking – the documentary and the horror/thriller – in a convincing and wholly satisfying way. Going into the film, I was under the impression that S&Man was a faux-documentary. However, were one to excise the fictional element of Eric and his films, S&Man would be right at home on a shelf next to the work of Errol Morris or Joe Berlinger. Through interviews with filmmakers, actresses, and scholarly types, and supported by clips from some of the genre’s most depraved offerings, Petty offers up a compelling study of extreme horror cinema, the unique individuals who work in this industry, and the history and psychology behind it. The genius of this film, however, is the way Petty injects himself into this story, casting himself as a sort of Ahab, with Eric serving as the ever elusive white whale. It’s never really a question of is he/isn’t he with Eric – it’s obvious early on that he’s the genuine article. The real tension here comes from Petty, himself. So focused is he on finding the most extreme example of voyeurism in horror that, for awhile, he doesn’t see that it’s been right under his nose the entire time. When the realization is finally made, It’s powerful stuff, indeed, and culminates in one of the more disturbing denouements in recent memory.
Magnolia films releases S&Man on Blu-ray in a somewhat soft and mostly unimpressive 1081i transfer that, to be quite honest, really suits the film. This isn’t meant to look like a polished documentary by any means, and, seeing as how much of the footage from films such as “August Underground’s Mordum” or Bill Zebub’s sacrilegious rape fantasy flicks originated on standard definition videotape, there’s not a whole lot one can do to clean this sucker up. That being said, the image quality in some scenes is fairly sharp and there are occasional hints of fine detail, mostly evident in the talking heads sequences.
The 5.1 DTS HD audio track fares much better, with some really exceptional use of the satellite speakers, especially in outdoor scenes and on crowded sets. I actually found myself pausing the film a few times as some of the atmospheric sounds were so well defined and isolated that I thought someone was in my house! Obviously, one isn’t going to get the sort of audio experience a film like, say, Transformers will deliver, but it’s pretty impressive for a little low-budget documentary. Dialogue is crisp and organic throughout, while the subs make do with an ominous drone that swells in and out during the film’s more intense moments.
Bonus features includes two feature-length commentary tracks, one with Petty and the fictional Eric Rost, and the other featuring Petty and Eric Marcisack, the actor who portrayed Rost. The former is a sort of “in-character” discussion that, while fun, grows a little stale, and is especially unbelievable seeing as how the film ends. The second commentary, however, is a blast, and it’s really interesting to hear how the film came to be, how it was structured, and hear some of the more interesting stories of what went on behind the scenes. It’s a great commentary track, and one that burgeoning filmmakers would do well to listen to.
Other extras include an assortment of deleted/extended scenes (SD); “Underground Film Clip” (SD), which is basically an extended version of the snippets from Toe Tag’s “August Underground’s Mordum”, (something I’ll never revisit), as well as “The Complete S&Man: Episode 11” (SD), which runs 27 minutes and is about as close I’ll ever want to get to watching an actual serial killer stalk his prey. Rounding out the goodies are teasers for S&Man films, as well as the HD trailers for this feature and other Magnolia releases.
While I’m not even remotely a fan of the type of cinema that serves as the subject of the documentary portion of S&Man, I have to say that I found this peek into this world fascinating if not more than a little distressing. The inclusion of the fictional narrative element just sends this one up right over the top, making it one of the most unique and disturbing films I’ve seen. Obviously, S&Man is not for everyone. This film features extremely graphic depictions of torture and mutilation (some of which is real), and the subject matter, alone, would put off a good majority of the people I know, but fans of both documentary cinema and highly inventive filmmaking would be remiss if they didn’t at least give this one a rent. I can’t come right out and say I enjoyed S&Man (at least in the traditional sense of the word), but, at the same time, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, and I’ve no doubt this will be one that will stick with me for a long time to come.