Synopsis: When cult-favorite horror filmmaker JT Petty ventures into the dark world of underground horror, things don’t exactly go as planned. As he begins to examine the classic comparison between filmmaking and voyeurism within the horror genre, he uncovers a collective of filmmakers, deviants, and self-professed possible murderers.
The most notorious underground film series he discovers is called S&MAN, produced by the unassuming and creepy Eric Rost. The more Petty digs into his subject, the more Eric withdraws, claiming a desire to protect his “creative vision.” But Petty begins to suspect that the real reason may be that Eric’s “actors” are in fact “victims,” placing the filmmaker in dangerous territory and making S&man the most unsettling horror experience in years.
eyelights: its glance at underground horror.
eyesores: its unclear intentions. its poor structure. its limited scope.
“The slasher genre was made for nerds.”
‘S&man’ is a 2006 motion picture that’s both documentary and fiction at once: It explores the appeal and psychology of underground sleaze horror but does so with the help of real interview subjects as well as a fake filmmaker/subject to better explore the questions surrounding the making of this cult genre.
Written, directed and narrated by J. T. Petty, the claim is that he originally wanted to make a documentary on a peeping tom from the neighbourhood he grew up in, but couldn’t get his approval to be a subject. Having apparently already used up some of the studio’s budget by then, he sought another topic.
This lead him to a horror film gathering called Chiller Convention, where people peddle all sorts of horror-related wares. This is where the documentary claims that Petty met Eric Rost, maker of an ultra low budget horror series called ‘S&man’, in which Eric stalks women, then gets them to star in his films.
Without a doubt the whole S&man device is the most compelling part of the picture because “Eric” (who is played by Petty’s friend Erik Marcisak) feels entirely justified in his actions, exhibiting no empathy for the women. One can’t help but wonder what his intentions are and what the ultimate outcome will be.
What’s creepy about him is that he constantly blurs the line between himself and his on-screen persona, as the killer in the ‘S&man’ series. He constantly refers to his onscreen actions as fact, referring to the purportedly staged murders as though he were really doing it, and his actresses as “victims”.
Can he even tell the difference anymore? Has he crossed a line?
Many of their interview bits revolve around Petty trying to shed light on the matter, but Eric constantly answers in vague ways, refusing to commit in the way that Petty -and we- would like to hear. And when Petty asks if he can interview the “actresses” to get their perspective, he is equally evasive.
This creates a rift between them because, as Petty tries to explain to Eric, he needs to have a wider scope if he wants to focus his film on ‘S&man’, telling him that he refuses to use the documentary as a vehicle for peddling ‘S&man’. Feeling the pressure, Eric eventually expels the crew from his life.
Meanwhile, we are treated to interview footage with actual sleaze filmmakers Bill Zebub and Fred Vogel, who discuss their work, their intentions and motivations, along with footage from their films, über low budget affairs that are as grotesque as they are gratuitous. It’s bottom of the barrel material.
“Scream queen” Debbie D is also interviewed extensively about why she’s making theses films as a full-time gig, the extent she would go to for her “art”, and the impact she feels that this has. It all seems utterly innocent, perhaps naive, even, with her main argument being that “everything’s natural”.
Thankfully, there are a few professionals to bolster the material, with author Carol J. Clover discussing the genre at length, including some iconic films, and a sexologist and a forensic psychologist discussing the psychology of making and watching horror, with a particular focus on paraphilia and voyeurism.
But, although we get some professional opinions, the scope and depth of the picture is extremely limited: three filmmakers (one of them fake), an actress, and three professionals, can’t possibly cover a subject on their own and provide a complete perspective. So it fails miserably as a proper documentary.
It’s also structured in a poor way, jumping from one topic to the next, and one interview subject to the other, in an erratic fashion. Even the ‘S&man’ bits lack cohesion until the very end when there’s clearly a conflict brewing. Otherwise, it just looks like Petty tossed together a bunch of stuff randomly.
So it’s hard to judge ‘S&man’. Is it fact? Is it fiction? It’s not in-depth enough to be fact, but it’s also only partly fiction, so it doesn’t fall in that category either. If anything, it’s an interesting piece of work, because it looks like a misproduced documentary feature. Of course, that could have been planned.
We may never know the truth about ‘S&man’
Nota bene: Of note, the DVD features two commentaries: One featuring Petty and Marcisak, and one featuring Petty and Marcisak’s alter ego, Rost – so a real commentary and a fictional one. Now that‘s a very interesting gimmick. I’ll no doubt be listening to that at some point, to see how different the dynamics are and what comes of it.
Date of viewing: September 18, 2016