Thursday, December 5, 2013


S&man (2006)
Dir. J. T. Petty
Written by J.T. Petty
Starring Carol J. Clover, Debbie D, Bill Zebub, Erik Marcisak

     This nifty little oddity from direct J.T. Petty (the pretty good BURROWERS) weaves together genuine interviews on the subject of voyeurism and sadistic cinema with social critics, psychologists, z-grade horror directors, and an assortment of others but also injects fictional elements which slowly push the whole enterprise into the territory of genuine horror. It’s an exceedingly clever premise, because it allows Petty to take a close look at the concept of voyeuristic violence while allowing the viewer to question the voyeuristic violence that they’re actually watching in real time. We’re assumed to be on the side of, or at least sympathetic to, the (real life) z-grade shock-horror directors Fred Vogel and "Bill Zebub" who are interviewed here; after all, we’re watching a damn horror movie right now. Even if we may not be too into a film called JESUS CHRIST: SERIAL RAPIST, we probably at least defend the concept of boundary-pushing, violent cinema and can’t reasonably claim that normal horror is fine but this stuff somehow goes “too far” and becomes inappropriate or dangerous.

     But things get a little more uncomfortable when a third “underground horror filmmaker” named Eric Rost shows Petty his “S&man” series of stalker/murder videos. Even though he assures the crew that they’re faked, he’s a creepy weirdo and it sure looks real. He clearly is genuinely stalking real women, regardless of whether or not he’s murdering them. Have they found a genuine snuff filmmaker? If so, we’re gonna be pretty horrified, but of course, it’s hard to tell. It looks real, but lots of horror movies look real, and there’s nothing about these films which is any more or less depraved than the more obviously fictional films by Vogel and Zebub. If we can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s faked on camera, what does that mean about our acceptance of openly fictitious snuff trash like the work of the other interviewed directors? All the sudden all kinds of questions about how we determine what’s real and what isn’t start cropping up. We’re assuming that Eric Rost is a fictional person since he’s the crux of the drama here, but then again, what makes us think that any of these people being interviewed are real? In the camera’s eye, it’s all true.

Oh, you guys like Hannah? The new stuff is OK I guess. I was into it back at the beginning with Bridgette, before they sold out and started going mainstream.

     So, it’s a clever premise, perhaps too clever for it’s own good. It has a great setup and asks some genuinely interesting and tough questions in a unique way, but it’s also a little amateurish and a bit too coyly postmodern to be very satisfying. It’s a great idea to ask us to question why we enjoy violent, sadistic movies while at the same time actually letting us watch one, but it also means we have to suffer through a not-especially convincing fictional horror sideshow. I’m not sure, maybe if I went into this film not knowing that it had fictional elements, I might have believed it more. But as it is, nothing about the Eric Rost sequences had the vitality and the believability of the real interviews. It’s that old problem with these “found footage” films (though this isn’t precisely the same thing) where when you actually see real reality, almost any fiction, no matter how well done, is gonna seem chintzy in comparison. It’s a big problem, because this juxtaposition is the whole point of the film, but it also seems sort of perfunctory.

     On the other hand, though, I have no doubt that Rost (played by comedian Erik Marcisak) could and did successfully pass himself off as a genuine director at the horror/snuff convention Petty attends early on to meet some of his subjects. If people like his movies and identify with his motives (especially the barely concealed thread of misogyny which runs through this kind of horror), what makes them any better than him? And for that matter, what makes us any better than him? Granted, most of us don’t watch (or enjoy, anyway) stuff quite as gratuitously vicious and degrading as the underground horror stuff they show here, but what, it’s OK to like violence just because it’s not directed at women? They show a brief clip of Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women and Chainsaws, reacting in bemused shock to one of these films, which is understandable, they’re pretty fucked up. But then again, lady, you wrote an entire book about horror movies, and specifically name-check a number of them including TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. That one is at least as depraved (and far more imaginatively so) as anything we see in these fictional snuff films, but you’re going to tell me it’s no problem to watch a movie which is explicitly about this stuff as long as the camera shyly cuts away from the violence instead of lingering on it?

One of these things is not like the others. 

     That’s not to pick on Clover, who’s absolutely delightful here even though I have some serious problems with her take on the subject. It’s just that I actually think horror aficionados are too infrequently asked tough questions about this subject. Is it really a great thing that we celebrate sadistic violence (particularly against women) in this way? Are we really so much better than Eric Rost because we enjoy watching violence, but don’t want to physically participate in it? It takes our usual discomfort on the subject of voyeurism (we're repulsed by voyeurs and yet enjoy watching them in the movies) and adds a particularly aggressive, violent element to mull over. These are tough questions to answer, but they deserve to be answered, and S&MAN forces us to confront them head-on in a way that I don’t think any other film really could.

     That said, it’s more a film full of interesting questions than it is actually, you know, an interesting film. And in fact, its best bits are only tangentially related to the topic at hand: the sex therapist/ psychologist married couple who call to mind a sexually liberated, postmodern American Gothic; Professor Clover chuckling over the kids these days and their nu horror; Bill Zebub suddenly turning adorably shy and self-conscious on the set of one of his horror movies with someone filming him; Fred Vogel discussing the awkwardness of acting in a rape scene with a buddy’s girlfriend. These moments aren’t about horror, they’re about people, in the way the best documentaries are. How is poor fictional Eric Rost supposed to compete with such vivid, colorful, conflicted characters? Maybe the next step in this found footage movement ought to be away from fiction entirely.


  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Carol Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
  • BOOBIES: Yeah, quite a few, although you're not gonna love the context.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: ...Although there's a lotta blood on display, I don't think these guys have the money to make real prop severed limbs.
  • ENTRAILS? Gonna say yes, lots of stabbing.
  • SLASHERS: Yeah, I'd say this one counts as a slasher.
  • CURSES: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid-High, low-budget with no theatrical release.

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