AUGUST 31, 2011
I’ve been putting off S&Man (pronounced "Sandman", not "S&M Man") for a while now, because I knew it featured clips from movies directed by Bill Zebub and the Toe Tag guys, i.e. underground “extreme” nonsense that I'd sooner quit HMAD than ever sit through one in its entirety (a Toe Tag production remains the only film I ever shut off in the 4.5 year history of HMAD). Not only was I not too keen about looking at it, I knew it would feature the sort of thing that would upset my wife, so I had to watch when I had time to not only watch the movie but its two commentaries and other bonus material. So when she said she was going out to dinner tonight I figured I’d have enough time to watch the movie, and then tomorrow I work late so I’d have time to go through the extras in the AM after she had gone to work.
Given my distaste for those things, a lot of the movie left me sort of cold, as it was essentially a documentary about how far horror has come over the years; after a brief overview of the slasher film from Carol Clover (author of “Men, Woman, and Chainsaws”) we are introduced to Zebub and the others, as well as Eric Rost, a guy who makes the titular “Sandman” videos, a series of shorts in which he follows a girl for a while, uses voodoo to erase her existence, and then kills her. The first half of the film is largely a straight, traditional documentary, focusing on the makers of these underground horror films and how they are made as well as their role in the horror genre as a whole. But after a while it switches gears a bit, as director JT Petty (The Burrowers, Soft For Digging) takes a more involved role in the movie as he grows concerned that Eric might actually be a real killer.
Of course, Eric is an actor, and thus the movie sacrifices some of its documentary cred in favor of an intriguing “mockumentary”/found footage type deal, where scripted (or at least, plotted) events occur as they would in a documentary. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to something like it would be the excellent comi-drama doc The Hole Story, and I think it’s far more successful than the usual Blair Witch-inspired "Is this real or fake?" flick (as I write this, NASA has just issued a statement in which they want to make it abundantly clear that Dimension’s Apollo 18 is NOT a true story – gee, thanks guys).
I wish I was fooled longer; I don’t know if they wanted to make it fairly obvious that it was staged or not, but even before the ridiculous voodoo angle is introduced I was having doubts. For starters, we see Eric steal one of his victims’ keys after she leaves them and the rest of her purse on the table when she goes to order a coffee at a crowded diner. Come on, what sort of person is that stupid? Also, just the general idea plus time give it away; the movie was shot in 2005 – I think I would have heard about this guy by now if he was an actual killer (the movie was unfortunately shelved for a few years due to internal issues at the production company). The fact that Eric was the only one of the subjects I wasn’t familiar with also tipped me off, though that's minor - I’m guessing someone like my mom would probably just assume they were ALL fake before she’d single one out as being “off”. Nope, sorry mom – Bill Zebub is an actual guy making actual godawful shit.
On the other hand, I was impressed by how much work Petty (and the actor playing Eric) put into “seeding” this guy into reality, having him give out a complete episode of "S&Man" at a Chiller convention (one I’m pretty sure I attended! If I didn’t ignore everyone handing their junk out at these things, I might have gotten one!), even apparently getting Michael Rooker to plug the S&Man website (we see a lot of clips from Henry but not that footage, dammit). Also, as I just mentioned, they actually went ahead and created an entire 30 minute episode of "S&Man", which is on the Blu-ray and damned impressive. Not the actual piece, which is largely boring (and the feature shows all the highlights anyway), but the fact that they actually did this much legwork to put the idea of this guy into reality before even starting the documentary proper. It’d be like if they actually had Josh, Heather, and Mike make some sort of student film two years before Blair Witch came out.
But while this stuff is a lot of fun (I particularly enjoyed how Petty sort of played himself as an asshole), most of the movie is given to Zebub or Toe Tag maestro Fred Vogel rambling on and on while discussing their unwatchable dreck. And throughout the movie I couldn’t decide who I disliked more; Zebub admits his movies are shit and he makes them because people buy them to jerk off to (gah!), so does this make him better or worse than Vogel, who doesn’t seem to have that sort of honesty about what he does (which is the same sort of garbage). If you’re unfamiliar with their “films”, you’re lucky, but the movie gives you enough of an idea to know whether or not it’s your thing. Zebub has a penchant for girls being tied to crosses and raped (sometimes by Jesus himself), and Vogel’s films involve girls puking on each other, followed by sex and/or killing. We’re also exposed to Debbie D, a “scream queen” who stars in fetish films that are actually ordered by people. Like, one guy apparently gets off on navel violence, and thus she makes a movie specifically for him (but available to any customer) in which her belly button is shot or zapped with lasers or whatever. And you guys say The Hitcher remake is a waste of time? Then again, one man's trash...
But it’s kind of a shame, because there are a lot of good points being made (Vogel in particular actually has some valid things to say), especially from Clover as well as a pair of psychiatrists whose names escape me (one is Krieger). Hell even Eric has some thoughtful insight, but it’s mixed with this other junk. Don’t get me wrong – I understand the need to give context and a bit of background on these guys, and obviously they have their fans who will no doubt love the fact that there’s a documentary that delivers the same sort of perverse visuals that the movies themselves offer – but since I personally can’t stand this “underground” stuff it made the movie difficult to endure at times, especially since they couldn’t have too much stuff with Eric (which was far more interesting to me), lest the audience catch on too quickly.
Luckily the commentary tracks muted the dialogue of the participants in favor of a chat between Petty and Eric. Interestingly, one track has them talking normally about making the film, how they pulled off the “snuff” scenes, how the project came about, etc – it’s a terrific listen for anyone interested in this sort of stuff, and even includes a few acknowledgments of things that annoyed me. For example, when Clover talks about the slasher film, she skips over Black Christmas, something Petty regrets (whether she never mentioned it at all or it was edited, I am unsure). One of the few notes I took was “Black Christmas?”, so again – this is why listening to commentaries is important. I could have been going on and on about how they didn’t know what they were talking about since they skipped over such an important chapter in slasher history, and it would have been unnecessary.
The other track, however, finds the two men “in character”, and it starts off with Petty explaining that Eric sued him over his suggestion that he was actually killing people (they settled out of court). Then throughout the track they are impressively dismissive of one another; for 80 minutes they always sound like they’re about one remark away from coming to blows (or worse). It’s the sort of thing that a filmmaker would do in order to further try to convince an audience of his (fake) film’s legitimacy, but the fact that it’s paired with one that very much proves that it’s staged just makes it a wonderfully amusing “alternate” commentary. It gets a bit repetitive at times (Eric is convinced Petty has staged EVERYTHING in the movie, including the insight from the experts), but still, considering I had just watched the movie twice and was still being entertained with this third go-around should be enough to prove that it’s worth a listen.
The rest of the stuff you can skip. The deleted scenes are forgettable (and hard to hear), and the trailer doesn’t even really seem to be trying to hide that it’s not 100% real, as it’s cut like a typical thriller. The trailers for the "S&Man" episodes are all the same (random footage, title card with the name of the victim, random footage, title card with the color of her hair, random footage, title card of how she died, quick shot of her death – end), and again, the full episode that is included isn’t really worth watching once you’ve seen the feature film – it’s a clever promotional tool, sure, but hardly something you’ll want to watch on its own especially once you know it’s all fake.
In terms of concept and even execution to a degree, the movie is nearly a home run. I wasn’t fooled for long, but I liked how much effort they put into setting it up in the real world, and the Eric scenes are just as suspenseful/exciting as any other “found footage” movie, if not more so since there’s no supernatural element to bog it down, like usual. And fake or not, the ending is impressively grim. But that’s only half of the movie, and the other half is spent on guys defending/discussing their worthless trash films. Maybe if a Zebub type was featured as part of a more diverse group (i.e. guys making normal horror movies, or maybe even a legit veteran filmmaker), maybe it would have been a bit more successful; a few familiar talking heads could have even helped sell the “is this real?” concept better. At any rate, it further proves that Petty is one of our more interesting new genre filmmakers, and I hope he continues to defy expectations and make movies that aren’t easy to pigeonhole. All of his films have been remarkably different from one another, something that is to be lauded. Nothing against Ti West, but all four of his features can be described the same way: "80 minutes of nothing happening and then a rushed climax". At least with Petty you don't know what you're going to get, though there's a damn good chance it'll be good.
What say you?