Directed by J.T. Petty, 2006
A documentary from director/fan J.T. Petty about the underground horror world and its seedy denizens, S&MAN is a sobering look under the toenails of the biggest elephant in our room: There is a subset of horror, ‘the kind you can’t get at Best Buy’, that is nasty, mean spirited, pushy filmmaking. Better/Worse yet, there are those who need it, who get off on rape, torture and murder. Petty walks through the lives of the pseduo-snuff (directors, actors, actresses), those who enjoy watching it and those who are caught in the crossfire. There’s Debbie D, Scream Queen starlet, directors Bill Zebub and Fred Vogel (of notorious outlet August Underground), and Eric Rost, a voyeur calling himself Sandman who sells his ultra realistic peeping Tom snuff at horror conventions.
It is this last man, Eric, who is at the fulcrum of S&MAN’s fleeting brilliance. Petty is quick to find the loose thread in Eric’s story, that the women he is filming aren’t actresses. The intelligence of this examination lays not in its obvious deception – Are Eric’s films real or not? – rather in its indifference. It matters not whether the Sandman tapes are real, whether Eric Rost is a real person or just a character. He is a parable for a reality we all know exists. There are people who have made real snuff films. There are people who have sought out real snuff films. More frightening than that, no past tense is needed in those sentences. People still make them. There exists today a market for videotapes of real rape, of real torture and of real murder. Or, failing that availability, as close as possible as anyone is willing to simulate.
I can’t think of anything that disturbs me more.
In fact, I’m willing to bet my face aged an extra three years in 84 minutes under the stress of a perpetual brow furled by disgust at the type of sleaze people get off on, clips from which are shown throughout the interviews. Yet I was fascinated by Petty’s excavation of underground horror. S&MAN is as much Ken Burns as it is MAN BITES DOG, as much Werner Herzog as it is THE LAST HORROR MOVIE. The narrative never points the finger, never scolds or takes too strong a position on any of its subjects. Petty merely unveils and lets viewer introspection run its own natural, discomforting course.
This restraint in the editorial department is S&MAN’s power play. It stops it from being preachy, accusatory or even congratulatory. Instead, the whole production is a somber reflecting pool. Even, if like me, you can’t tolerate the hardcore horror on display (which gradients downwards from HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER to women vomiting on each others’ blood covered faces) the talking heads provide plenty of insight into both the mainstream and the underground. Particularly of note is Carol J. Clover, author of MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAINSAWS, who offers ceaseless analysis of the roll of the voyeur’s eye in horror films. Thanks to Petty’s film, her book is going in the queue.
Pacing could have used a little quickening up (feels half an hour longer than it is), but I can concede any lasting complaint there due to the content. There are deep, tough moments captured here. It’ll be a while before I forget Bill Zebub (who, when referring to French jolter IRREVERSSIBLE, creepily states “that was the first time rape wasn’t erotic to me”) attempting to film a scene from his next movie in which an aspiring model/actress spends an entire night laying on her stomach on the floor of a bar while Zebub drinks himself into a stupor in order to steal the temerity to film whatever it is he is ultimately going to do to her. It’s a heartbreaking scene, not only for the actress whose distress is visible throughout, but also for Zebub, who in an earlier interview admitted that he only makes his movies because, paraphrasing here, ‘perverts keep paying him to’.
As far as the fiction vs non-fiction musings of S&MAN go, I’ve got to admit this is where the movie starts off genius, but later waffles for me. Eric Rost is invaluable as an avatar for a fear we all have, but when Petty intentionally crosses the line we can all see, well, he’s entered territory that two aforementioned films (MAN BITES DOG and THE LAST HORROR MOVIE) have already done better. Had he taken a more acute approach to the integration of the idea of a Rost, I’d perhaps be more glowing. Instead, the crux of his film becomes a distraction. Not an impedance, mind you, S&MAN is still a fantastic, luminous documentary. It just, unfortunately, has a twist that ain’t so twisty if you’re familiar at all with the notion.
Still, it’s the threat that what is fake could be real and that what is real sadly is not fake that makes S&MAN an important piece of filmmaking. There are plenty of documentaries about specific horror movies or specific genres, but I can think of none other about the people the mainstream wishes didn’t exist. For that alone J.T. Petty has banked credit in my book.
Even if his movie makes me (hypocritically?) sad for humanity.