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Examines the classic comparison between filmmaking and voyeurism, particularly within the seedy underground genre of fetish films. The most notorious of these is a series titled "S&Man," where voyeurism takes center stage as people are unknowingly followed with a camera. Much of the footage included will shock and disturb even the most seasoned horror veteran. The question ultimately posed is whether or not the viewers' interest in horror films is rooted in the same voyeuristic urge to which these fetish videos appeal.
For more about S&Man and the S&Man Blu-ray release, see S&Man Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on November 1, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: J.T. Petty
Starring: Elizabeth Cartier, Carol J Clover, Debbie D, Freddie Dingo, Michelle Glick, Julie Katz
» See full cast & crew
S&Man Blu-ray Review
Up to snuff?
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, November 1, 2010
In his review of British director Michael Powell's 1960 cult-horror thriller Peeping Tom, Roger Ebert says, "The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people's lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it." S&Man, pronounced "sandman," is not so well-behaved; the whole purpose of the film—a quasi-documentary about underground independent horror filmmaking—is to explore the idea of viewer as voyeur and parse the fetishistic effect that on-screen violence has on its audience. While documentarian J.T. Petty—who previously directed the 2008 horror/western The Burrowers—doesn't arrive at any truly profound conclusions, S&Man is an unsettling experience nonetheless and definitely not for the faint of heart, weak stomached, or easily offended. You'll see all manner of gruesome imagery here, and Petty wants you to believe that at least some of it may be real—that is, the stuff of an honest-to-goodness snuff film. If this short description peaks your interest—I won't judge—the less you know about S&Man before you see it, the better.
Consider this a spoiler alert for the rest of the review.
Seriously, don't read any further if you don't want to know about the film's central conceit, which is practically impossible not to discuss.
See, J.T. Petty is totally Blair Witch-ing us, although his film is at least partially real. As any good liar knows, the best, most believable lies are couched in adjacent truths, and so Petty frames S&Man like a conventional investigative documentary, giving the project an air of legitimacy by consulting several bonafide filmmakers, psychiatrists and other experts, including noted horror scholar Carol Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the book that popularized the concept of the "last girl" in slasher movies. Petty opens by explaining, in voiceover, that he initially wanted to make a documentary about a peeping tom near his childhood home who had been indicted for compiling countless hours of through-the-window video of nearly everyone in the neighborhood. When the community found out that this footage would have to be screened in court, all charges were dropped. At the last minute, the unconvicted peeper declined to appear in Petty's already-financed film, and the director was forced to switch topics to the equally voyeuristic world of underground horror. Petty then goes to the Chiller Convention—a meet 'n' greet for purveyors and aficionados of faux-snuff films, held in a hotel conference room—where he discovers the three enterprising independent "directors" that become S&Man's subjects.
The first, Bill Zebub—get it?—is the long-haired, beer-chugging metal-head creator of gonzo, low-budget torture porn videos with titles like Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist and The Crucifier. Clearly, he's got a fetish for sacrilegious imagery, and his movies are filled with naked "scream queens" getting nailed to crosses, raped, and worse. (I won't mention what Jesus does with the stigmata wound in his hand.) Zebub has no artistic pretensions: "You will jerk off watching this movie," he says, "but expect nothing else." Fred Vogel, though, is more ambitious. His company, Toe Tag Productions, is out to "sicken and disturb," utilizing professional special effects to create impossibly gory, stomach-churning tableaus. When asked if he's seen any of the recent decapitation videos posted online by terrorists, he responds, "Yes…but my first thought was, 'Toe Tag can do it better.'" Weirdo obsession with simulated depravity aside, both Zebub and Vogel seem fairly well-adjusted. Dorky, yes. Dangerous, no.
But then there's Eric Rost, the vaguely creepy, maybe-maladjusted creator of the multi-installment S&Man series, from which the documentary draws its name. Less gory and more unsettlingly realistic than anything Zebub or Vogel dream up, each S&Man episode "portrays" Rost stalking and murdering a female victim. I use quotation marks because it becomes increasingly unclear whether or not these videos are just an act. Rost is cagey about whether the girls in his movies are even aware that he's filming them—that is, whether or not he's really a stalker/murderer—and his relationship with Petty quickly disintegrates when the director gets too close to the truth.
Or, rather, the fiction. Obviously, the character of Eric Rost is a complete fabrication, and if you stick around for the credits, you'll notice that he's played by actor Erik Marcisak, while everyone else is credited "as him/herself." While Marcisak's creepo performance would be commendable in a feature film, from the start he doesn't come off nearly as authentic as Vogel or Zebub, who are both actual underground horror scenesters. Once you figure out the ruse—which doesn't take long—the ensuing drama between Rost and J.T. Petty seems overplayed, even unnecessary. You can see what Petty is trying to do—comment on the way audiences are complicit in onscreen violence by making us watch what we're led to believe is an authentic murder—but the execution, so to speak, ultimately isn't quite seamless enough to sell the illusion.
Still, if you take away the gimmicky premise—"real" horror creeping into a documentary about horror—S&Man prompts some genuine discussion about the multi-faceted psychological effects that the genre has on its audience. "There's a part of every human being that wants to look at the car crash," says Vogel, elucidating only one aspect of the allure of hardcore torture porn. Carol Clover also brings up "the sadistic gaze of the filmmaker and the masochistic gaze of the person into whose eyes these images are going," but even this is a simplification. As the film's title alludes, and as Clover also points out, viewers are often both sadists and masochists, alternately identifying with the power-hungry pleasure of the killer and the pain of the victim. S&Man additionally tackles the roles that gender and point of view have in establishing the relationship between hardcore underground horror and its audience, but what's missing is the perspective of the audience itself. We hear the opinions of filmmakers, sexologists, and criminal pathologists, and even witness the borderline delusional aspirations of a self-professed "scream queen," but Petty never interviews the viewers of fake snuff, the folks who shill out $30-a-pop for cheaply produced DVDs that show graphic simulacrum of torture, rape, and murder. Personally, I'd rather see a documentary about the motivations of the people who attend Chiller Conventions.
S&Man Blu-ray, Video Quality
S&Man is an intentionally ugly film, so you shouldn't expect much from this 1080i/AVC-encoded presentation. The clips from Rost's S&Man series, Vogel's August Underground, and Bill Zebub's Kill the Scream Queen are unmistakably low-rez, sometimes barely transcending VHS quality. The interview segments were presumably shot with high definition video cameras, but even these looks murky, soft, and borderline smeary, with practically no fine detail at all. I wouldn't be surprised to find out the footage was upscaled. Likewise, color is muted, the image looks perpetually washed out, and black levels are never deeper than a grayish sludge. In a documentary like this, any notion of "picture quality" understandably goes right out the window. It simply is what it is, and the best you can say about it is that there are no overly obvious compression or disc hiccups.
Note: You may notice some "combing" artifacts in some of the screenshots, but these aren't visible when the image is in motion.
S&Man Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Sound fares slightly better, thanks to a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Still, the mix never goes beyond "serviceable." J.T. Petty's narration blares out of all speakers equally, meaning his voice takes up residence in the rear channels as well, an odd—but not necessarily ineffective— directorial choice. This is about the extent of the surround usage, aside from some crowd ambience during the Chiller Convention and some isolated atmospheric noises. The score has appropriate clarity and presence—even managing some swelling LFE to underscore the intensity of key moments— and the interview subjects are recorded moderately cleanly. Otherwise, there's not much to say here.
S&Man Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
There are two commentary tracks here. The first features director J.T. Petty and Eric Rost—the character—squabbling about the film. Essentially, the commentary is a kind of sequel to the film, which is an interesting concept, but it gets tiring quickly. Better is the track with Petty and Erik Marcisak—the actor who plays Rost—as they reveal the ruse and chat frankly about the film's production.
The Complete S&Man 11 (SD, 27:26)
Here, we get to see the entirety of S&Man: Episode 11, in which Eric Rost stalks a woman, sneaks into her apartment to steal bodily fluids and hair, does some hokey voodoo "depersonalization" ritual, and ultimately goes in for the kill.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD, 12:28)
A variety of excised clips, most focusing on Rost, including an extended version of the scene where Rost tries to pitch a film to J.T. Petty.
Underground Film Clip (SD, 7:55)
A disturbing clip from Toe Tag Production's August Underground.
S&Man Film Trailers (SD, 3:47)
Brief trailers for five of Eric Rost's S&Man movies.
Theatrical Trailer (1080i, 1:21)
S&Man Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Despite a flawed execution of an admittedly provocative premise, S&Man delivers an occasionally insightful dialectic about the psychological nature of horror. Given the extremely graphic subject matter—basically, fake snuff films—this definitely falls into the not for everybody category, but those interested in the seamy independent underbelly of horror filmmaking may want to venture a look.
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S&Man Blu-ray, News and Updates
• S&Man Blu-ray Announced - August 9, 2010
Magnolia Home Entertainment has announced the disturbing 2006 documentary S&Man (pronounced "Sandman") for Blu-ray release on October 12. S&Man exposes the voyeuristic nature of faux snuff films and the desensitizing of modern society. It premiered at the Toronto ...
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