I heard about this project quite a while ago, while it was still in the early stages of development. J.T. Petty, the director of the creepy and acclaimed Soft for Digging, alluded to this documentary in my interview with him, and I’ve been fascinated ever since. Now, it’s hard to "review" a documentary the way I normally would, say, a feature film, so I’m going to dispense with the long-winded synopsis, and other such stuff in favor of getting down to the nuts and bolts of why S&Man is such an important documentary. Besides, a documentary film that deals with underground horror, its devotees, and its creators is pretty much critic-proof anyway. By the way, it must be mentioned from the outset that the title of this film is pronounced "Sandman", and not "'S' and 'M' Man". Any evocation of the concept of "S & M" in the title of this film is purely by chance, right? Maybe…
S&Man starts like many documentaries…by anecdotally providing some background information or perspective. In this case, Petty (in his effective voiceover) informs us that his film was originally to deal with the "real-life" exploits of a notorious sociopath and voyeur, but that the man (who is now living in suburban Virginia), refused any participation with the project. So, shifting gears (but not too much), Petty focuses on the sociopathic voyeur that, ostensibly, dwells within each of us; none more so, perhaps, than in the heart of fans of so-called "underground horror films". Now, it’s important to define what an "underground horror film" really is. Regular readers of this site will, no doubt, be familiar with the term, but at the risk of repetition, the idea of an "underground horror film" can be encapsulated by the following traits: miniscule budget, lack of studio/sponsor support, "illegal" filming (i.e. filming without proper permitting, union participation, etc), a tendency to focus on "extremes" such as rape, graphic murder, graphic sexuality, voyeurism, and the blending of those elements, and perhaps most importantly, the implication and “forced participation” of the viewer in the…ahem…”atrocities” being portrayed. Films like August Underground and August Underground’s Mordum, naturally, fit into this category, whereas most mainstream films…even “extreme” films like Hostel do not. This delineation does not imply the relationship between “good” versus “bad” films; indeed, many “underground” horror films are, cinematically speaking, “better” films than many mainstream efforts. No, we’re talking about “tone” here, and what the filmmaker is trying to say or do with the film. Now that that’s out of the way, we can move on to other things…
S&Man delves into the core of the matter…the reason why people seem to love true "underground horror films". Petty gives us interactions and anecdotes with people "in the industry", such as Fred Vogel (the August Underground films) and Bill Zebub (Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist, among others) to name only two. These are folks who are clearly on the "fringe" of society…at least filmmaking society…but they aren’t particularly crazy or maladjusted. In fact, Vogel in particular (as I found out for myself in my own interview with him) strikes the viewer as being quite "together" and well-adjusted. He’s a guy who is clearly grounded in reality, but who seeks an outlet for his own fears, desires, and creative whims. That his creative whims can (and do) involve staging and filming such atrocities as a tortured woman being sexually molested with the severed penis of her dying boyfriend is wholly beside the point. What matters is that, no matter how disgusting and "realistic" the act on film might be, Vogel makes it clear that (to borrow a catchphrase), it’s only a movie…only a movie…only a movie. Nevertheless, Petty’s focus seems to be going right to the proverbial "horse’s mouth" on these issues, in an effort to discover just why people want…and often need to see these things on film. Of course, it would be too easy and one-sided if Petty were only to include comments from the makers of these poisonous strips of celluloid. So, he mixes things up a bit by conversing with a "horror film expert" and a pair of psychologists, who discuss (from naturally differing perspectives but to ultimately the same end) the nature of voyeurism and horror, along with scholarly summations as to the "who, why, and to what extent" of the blending of those concepts. Not only does this break up the monotony of listening to Bill Zebub rave about his latest opus, for example (no offense, Bill!), but it provides what every good documentary needs…"expert opinion" to give the issues weight and cultural perspective.
So, you’ve got to be asking "what's up with that title, anyway?" Well, the title is taken from the title of a series of highly-questionable "underground horror films", called the S&Man series (episodes 1, 2, 3…etc), ostensibly "directed" by a guy who not only has questionable techniques for procuring and selecting his "victims", but who also seems to be stalking Petty himself. S&Man takes an interesting turn whenever focusing on this series of films. We are "treated" to various scenes from the "series". Petty agrees to meet this director at his home...a grimy, dimly lit hovel in his mother's basement...where Petty has a series of tense conversations with this guy. It's during these sections of S&Man that the line between documentary and horror film are blurred...and blurred significantly. Petty, in effect, becomes a character in his own movie. Not just a character, but a participant. I won't ruin most of what transpires during these ever-escalating sequences, but suffice it to say that Petty really drives the point home about how the distinction between fiction and reality is so easily crossed...especially in the underground of horror cinema. Who's to say what is real and what isn't? Too vague for you? Well, that's just tough. You're going to have to watch it yourselves. S&Man will definitely leave you questioning what you've just seen...especially the final few minutes of film.
What's miraculous here is Petty's uncommon restraint and light-heartedness when dealing with these admittedly prickly issues and concepts. To this reviewer's mind, Petty's "in-jokey" sense of humor is perfectly captured in the first couple of minutes of S&Man. Petty inserts a melange of scenes from the classic Peeping Tom. One scene has the character of Mark (the titular "Tom") being grilled by a friend/co-worker about his next project. Mark slyly (and dryly) responds, "It's a documentary", but when questioned as to the subject matter, he responds, "I'd rather not say...not just yet...not until it's finished." What I'm getting at is that Petty has the knowledge and skill to make an engaging "documentary", but he also possesses the storytelling savvy to know that he shouldn't "show his hand" until the very end. It's only then, in the final few seconds of the film, that we really know what this "documentary" is about. It's chilling, clever, sad, ironic, somewhat sickening...in short, all of the things that a good horror movie need to be in order to truly succeed. Don't be fooled, though...this ain't no Blair Witch Project with it's pseudo-documentary "verite" style. S&Man is a valid and important documentary, which morphs into an effective underground horror film to illustrate a point. And it's a point I've not seen so well illustrated before. Well done, Mr. Petty.
Inherent to the "screener" nature of this review disc, there are no "special features" to speak of. But, the widscreen transfer (it appears to be 1.78:1, formatted for 16x9 TV's) is crisp and clear. Likewise, the sound (mostly narration by Petty and soundbytes/interviews with various participants) is serviceable, but not really designed to showcase your expensive home theater sound system. All told, it's a great disc. I can't wait to see how the eventual full release of this film will look. Commentary tracks for documentaries may seem redundant, but I'd be interested to hear, in detail, what Petty has to say about his film.
S&Man is still, as of this writing, in the "festival circuit", so if you have the chance to attend a showing in or near your town, I'd highly recommend that you do so. The film is engaging, entertaining, chilling, funny, and informative...in the way the best documentaries should be. It truly speaks volumes about this genre we love so much, and about what it means to be a "fan" (remember, "fan" is short for "fanatic") of that genre. Seek it out and see it...soon! S&Man gets the Atrocities Cinema Essential Award!