Thursday, February 11, 2010

S&Man (J.T. Petty, 2006)

Note: Due to the difficulty in getting a copy of this film (it's neither on or Netflix as of this writing - Mr. Clay McLeod Chapman lent me his copy), odds are that most of you reading this have not seen this film. So, unlike most horror film posts, I'll try to keep spoilers to a bare minimum.

J.T. Petty's S&Man (pronounced "sandman") is a profoundly disturbing and thoughtful film. I almost can't talk about it without giving away what makes it so unnerving (I also don't want to overhype it). But suffice it to say it gave me the retroactive willies several hours after watching it.

Originally intended as a documentary about a peeping tom from Petty's childhood town who videotaped thousands of hours of footage of his neighbors without their knowledge, S&Man becomes a documentary of sorts about the subculture of underground horror films when the peeping tom refuses to be interviewed.

The primary subjects of the documentary are Bill Zebub, who makes films with titles like Jesus Christ Serial Rapist, Fred Vogel of Toe Tag Films (director of August Underground) and Eric Rost, who makes the titular S&Man series, who becomes the real focal point of the film (for reasons I'll explain later).

Amidst the interviews with these filmmakers and documentary footage of their incredibly disturbing films, we have various talking head interviews with a "scream queen," a professor, a sexologist and a forensic psychologist who talk about, well, horror, fetishes and fetish films. The film then explores ideas of the audience's desire to have a visceral relationship with film (which is one the many reasons I enjoy horror films), with voyeurism, and with the desire to see the taboo.

Though primarily dealing with horror films, S&Man explores the connection between voyeurism and all filmmaking, and tries to get to the bottom of our fascination with violence and torture. It also suggests throughout that very few of us - if any - are really immune.

As a result, especially since I would consider myself a fan of horror films (duh), this film is one of the most unsettling and unnerving film-viewing experiences I've had in a while.

What's amazing about S&Man is that it genuinely wants to examine the appeal of horror films (even extreme ones), not just finger-wag at those who enjoy them. There's sincere reflection and contemplation here, not just easy - and smarmy - self-righteousness. (As a fan of horror films, I do find this ubiquitous and knee-jerk form of moralizing tiresome.) Petty is, after all, a director of horror films, so he has a great deal of love and respect for the genre.

One of the talking heads hypothesizes that often, insecure men who are unsuccessful with the ladies (or, "nerds," in the parlance of our times) enjoy watching pretty girls getting destroyed because they represent the girls that have rejected them all their lives.

(While the Berkeley professor and horror film scholar hypothesized this, I was reminded of watching a double-bill of two horror films with Steph and Yustin from Nosedive Central a couple nights before: one intelligent and thoughtful [Ginger Snaps, which I hope to write about as a future horror film post] and one incredibly stupid [Freddy Versus Jason]. Watching these movies back-to-back, it was interesting to see the stark contrast of how the films treated its young female characters [we popped in FvJ because Katharine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps was in it]. In Ginger Snaps, the teens are portrayed as believable, thinking and sympathetic characters, with relatable anxieties, frustrations and personalities. In FvJ, they're just stock, two-dimensional killer fodder: insipid hateful hardbodies who convey no discernable or interesting personalities. When they talk, it's only in clich├ęs and/or to convey plot.)

There's also the flip side: while some horror films are designed to have the audience live vicariously through the killer, others are designed to have the audience live vicariously through the victim. (Halloween, for example, brilliantly offers both. The opening scene is literally from Michael's point of view, whereas the third act is completely from Laurie's.)

Watching this the first time round with bud and co-conspirator Abe Goldfarb, we noticed that these underground horror films covered in S&Man (based on the clips shown and the interviews from their makers) don't offer any reflection on, context for, or catharsis from its violence. There's no room for fear or pity, no room for thoughtful or sympathetic identification. Most of these films portrayed are designed for the viewer to offer identity with the killer, who is mostly killing personality-free pretty girls. They're made-to-order films to accommodate the fetishes of the filmmakers' audience base. Hell, even Bill Zebub says early on in the film: "I don't shoot these movies to be a piece of cinema, I shoot it so perverts give me money." Guess you at least have to admire the honesty.

(I'll also hand it to Vogel: although his films seem to be the most over-the-top and depraved in terms of content (think original Last House on the Left but more bloody and sadistic - yeah, I know), Vogel himself seems to be the most professional and put-together of the three filmmakers. He's mild-mannered, prefers to collaborate with people he trusts and who trust him, and it's clear that making his collaborators feel like they're in a safe environment is a major priority. In environs such as these, that's no small thing.)

Then, during the last third of the film, Petty is more explicit with the film's real subtext and goal: it's the hunt for the mythical "snuff" film (that most-likely fake subgenre of film where people are actually killed on camera).

And here's a good time to talk about Eric Rost, creator of the S&Man series. Oh, boy. Oh, boy.

Amidst Vogel, Bill Zebub and the experts talking about (amongst other things) snuff films, Perry tries to get more information from Eric about his brand of films and, more importantly, the truth behind the making of them.

According to Eric, a pudgy guy who lives in his mother's basement (seriously), he likes to follow pretty girls around and videotape them without their knowledge. Then, he approaches them, abducts them, and kills them.

The "episodes" of the S&Man series just has names of the girl's first name, followed by how they're killed. Here's a trailer for one of Eric's S&Man movies (NSFW):

The thing is, the more Petty grills Eric for information about how he makes his films, the more coy and evasive Eric gets. One minute, he talks about them like they're scripted films with consenting actresses, the next, he complains that one of the women ruined his shot because she "tried to escape." No, the women aren't aware that they're being first. No, they haven't taken any legal action once he's revealed himself to them. Has he kept in touch with any of the women afterwards? Nnnnnnnot really. Usually after filming they...part ways. When Petty asks for any of the women's contact information, Eric suggests that Petty give him his contact info, and he'll relay it to the women, so they can decide if they want to be interviewed.

He can't seem to give a straight answer. When Petty really starts to push him for honesty, Eric gets mad, and tells Petty and his crew to get lost (some of this can be found in the trailer above).

What the hell is going on here? Is Eric just trying to play up the mystique of his films, or is something more stomach-turning going on here?

BEGIN MILD POTENTIAL SPOILER WARNING HERE. Petty does give us an answer to these questions - sort of. Many people may find the conclusion of this film a cheat or horrific betrayal. (Although let's not get into the odd can of worms concerning why a veiwer may be disappointed with the ending.) For me, I found the ending is precisely what gives the film its power. In a way, the film not only becomes the very thing it's exploring, but transcends it. It gave me the creeps like you wouldn't imagine and forced me to rethink what I had just seen - specifically, the scenes centered on Eric, particularly when he pretends to choke a very uncomfortable-looking Petty - which chilled me to the bone. END MILD POTENTIAL SPOILER WARNING HERE.

Ultimately, the film is not about the makers of these depraved films so much as it is about us (which may be another reason why some folks may not be keen on the ending of the film). S&Man posits that one of the many desires that a viewer of horror films (or, really, anyone - not all those people rubbernecking to see a car wreck on the highway enjoy horror films) has, ranging from perverted and prurient to natural and primal, is to be punished and hurt in some way. And it spends its 90-minute run-time proving its point to the viewer, starting out as a rather pedestrian documentary about underground horror films then slowly and steadily becoming something more profound and unsettling.

Both more thoughtful about the
genre and freaked way the hell out,

James "Let's Watch A Romantic Comedy Now" Comtois

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