S&Man [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Magnolia Home Entertainment/Magnet
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (12th February 2011).
The Film

It’s easy to forget in this age of the internet that there was once a time when snuff films were a large part of the underground film folklore, but few people, if any, had ever seen one with their own eyes. We’ve all heard the stories of men paying a flat fee to sit in an undisclosed location with others, hoping to view an actual murder being committed on film. These days, however, things have been made much easier for those with more, ahem… acquired tastes. One quick trip through certain websites (which I won’t name, but they aren’t hard to find) can find willing viewers a click away from streaming videos of Middle Eastern beheadings, Russian serial killers, atrocities of war and just about any other imaginable damage that can be inflicted upon the human body. The days of hushed whispers discussing illegal snuff films are over because these days anyone can find them. Now, I realize there’s a difference between someone shooting a video of a soldier being beheaded versus an underground “filmmaker” setting out to abduct a victim purely for the purpose of making a snuff film. That’s a blurred line, just as is the line between those producing the films and those who watch them. At what point does the viewer become complicit in the actions of those seen on-screen? That’s an important question, and one that director J.T. Petty’s latest film, “S&Man” (pronounced “Sandman”)(2006), asks of viewers. Looking to discover just what drives people to make & view these films – one of the last unsettling horizons of horror – Petty interviews purveyors of contemporary faux snuff films, psychological professionals and one very peculiar filmmaker who might be making something much more authentic than anyone else on the scene.

“S&Man” is shot in a documentarian style, with director J.T. Petty providing the on-screen narration as well as conducting interviews and appearing on-screen intermittently. His goal, as he explains to us during the opening scenes, is to determine where the line is drawn between filmmaking and voyeurism – specifically, what draws people to horror films and how they can affect the psyche of both the performers and the viewers. Petty uses the annual Chiller Theater horror convention as a common ground for his interview subjects who dwell behind the cameras, introducing us to such underground luminaries as Fred Vogel, producer for Toe Tag Pictures; Bill Zebub, a shoestring-budget director/producer/actor who makes niche fetish horror films; and Eric Rost (Eric Marcisak), who’s responsible for the “S&Man” series of snuff films. In an effort to both offer a differing viewpoint and to provide some professional backing, Petty also includes interviews with a number of professionals that break down the line between voyeur and victims, explaining how the line can blur enough to escalate a situation to violence. During the course of his interviews, he learns of the difficulties Vogel and Zebub both encounter during their productions, even managing to get a glimpse into what they do to make things as real as possible. But his interviews with Rost reveal a mysterious man who utilizes some unscrupulous techniques, and he might be making his films more real than anyone he’s ever met before.

I might as well let the cat out of the bag because it isn’t likely to spoil anything, but Eric Rost isn’t an actual snuff filmmaker. It might be easy to buy that he is, though, since the other characters (especially Bill Zebub) seem so outlandish that you’d be more inclined to think they’re the phonies. What I loved about this pseudo-documentary is that Petty starts things off with a very serious, objective look at how this underground world of filmmakers operates. But the film has a tonal shift about halfway through when Petty and his crew begin to suspect that Rost, who approached him with his “S&Man” series at Chiller, might actually be stalking and killing his victims for real. How Petty plays all this out is what makes the film much more brilliant in my eyes, though. Rather than dumb the film down, he maintains that ambiguous, “is-he-or-isn’t-he?” tone right up to the very end. When I initially read the synopsis on the back cover, I was reminded of “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” (2006), another pseudo-documentary about a famed unstoppable slasher (think Jason Voorhees, but actually approachable) that turns from doc to dumbed-down slasher before the credits roll. There was a lot of potential for that film to provide a clever, witty commentary on the slasher genre, but as this was Petty’s opportunity to skew the underground/sleaze filmmaking market. Where “Behind the Mask” failed, however, Petty’s film has succeeded. He doesn’t feel the need to rush the film along to some calculated denouement that’ll end up feeling forced and contrived. By the time the credits roll, we’ve got a good notion that Rost’s films are disturbingly real, but we never learn the full extent of his work before he abruptly dismisses the crew from his home.

I want to give some credit to Eric Marcisak for playing the role of Rost with such a thin veneer of affable charm. He’s genuinely excited to meet up with JT, to pitch him his ideas for “big Hollywood movies”, and to be a part of his documentary. But once Petty starts to do some digging of his own, Rost quickly begins to lose his cool and begins to display traits of paranoia and an unstable mental state. Requests to interview some of his “actresses” are constantly rebuffed, and when Petty & crew become the voyeurs Rost is (by following him around & filming without prior consent) the once-eager underground filmmaker suddenly turns hostile. The great thing is that Marcisak gives such a wonderful, subtle performance that it never feels alien to the production. Hell, I think more people would suspect that Bill Zebub, or even film professor Carol J. Clover (who almost sounds like she’s reading lines during her interview), are the more likely candidates to be fictional.

This is a smart horror film for true horror fans. I’ve been to these conventions; I’ve interacted with the fans. Hell, I’ve even met some of the people that were interviewed. As a fan, it was fantastic to see Petty weave his film among the fabric of the horror community, using faces many fans already might know. By doing this, he gave his picture a huge wad of gravitas to chew on since many of these established names are just as low-budget and unknown to the masses as someone like Eric Rost would be. The use of professionals to dissect the relationship between voyeur and filmmaker enhances the film by giving us an educational context with which to view our filmmaking subjects. Petty never quite gets to the root of why people like watching such sadistic films, though some theories are bandied about, but the fictional subplot of Rost is too intriguing to ignore in favor of more opinion. Petty strikes a perfect harmony between the real and the unreal, crafting a horror film that operates outside the box but can at times be just as unsettling.

Video

The 1.78:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image is technically sound and well-lit, though I’d say you shouldn’t expect too much from a film that is given a very cinema verite look and feel. At many points throughout the film we’re treated to clips from ancient black-and-white footage, low-budget productions, major releases and home video, so quality can vary wildly depending on what’s being broadcast. The clips from Toe Tag Pictures’ productions look especially well-worn, like some VHS relic just unearthed. The meat of the film – all the footage shot by Petty’s crew – looks good, if not wholly unspectacular. Colors, detail and contrast all look like what you’d expect from someone shooting with a store bought HD camcorder. The film isn’t trying to win any awards for visual achievements; it’s perfectly competent and has the look of a modern home video. The image is devoid of any “popping” colors and black levels are often weak, but most, if not all, of this is likely intentional, so don’t gripe when it looks no better than a good upconverted DVD at times.

Audio

I think the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track mixed at 48kHz/24-bit gets the better presentation of the two. That isn’t to say this is a dynamic, engrossing track, but it is perfectly balanced. Director J.T. Petty’s voice is the most frequently heard audio on the track, and it comes at you from all corners of the room. His deep, baritone, monotone voice sounds perfectly suited for providing the narration (he even jokes about that fact during the opening moments), and it’s loud and clear so you’ll never strain to hear a word of what he’s saying. The rest of the interview subjects are just as well covered, so no qualms there. Outside of the background chatter at Chiller, the most exercise your rear speakers will get comes from the soundtrack. The music is very quiet and eerie, perfect mood music for the disturbing subject matter at hand. It’s not an aggressive or impressive track, but it gets the job done all the same.
Optional subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

Extras

Magnolia/Magnet has given “S&Man” a very good slate of extras – just about anything specific to the film you could ask for. We get two audio commentaries - one professional and the other almost being an audio sequel to the film – a complete episode of “S&Man”, deleted & extended scenes and a host of trailers. Unfortunately, none of it is presented in HD (save for the trailers).

First up is an audio commentary with director J.T. Petty and Eric Marcisak, the actor who plays director Eric Rost. I really liked this track because these two offer up a great discussion wherein they dissect the character of Rost and his intentions. They also talk a bit more about the slasher film genre, the ease of filming some of the scenes in Manhattan (where no one really cares what anyone else is doing) and how the line between reality and fiction is constantly blurred to maintain the semblance of realism behind it all.

The second audio commentary is with director J.T. Petty and Eric Rost, the fictional snuff director played by Eric Marcisak. I like the idea of doing a track like this, and it seems perfectly fitting for the film, but it wears out its welcome after a short while. Still, I thought some of the banter between Petty and Rost was funny, if only because it can be so ridiculous. If you liked the film then this might be worth listening to since it plays out like an audio sequel in some ways since we get to hear Rost’s thoughts on the film now that it’s been completed.

“The Complete S&Man Episode 11” featurette (480p) runs for 27 minutes and 23 seconds. Here’s the full-length video that we were treated to clips of during the film. Here we see the full extent of Eric’s stalking of Carlina, his entry to her home for the collection of various bodily fluids & trimmings, the voodoo ritual with a doll used in effigy and, finally, his abduction and murder of her. Even though this is purely fiction, the notion that there are very real people out there who have done similar things can make the footage somewhat unsettling.

There are a number of deleted & extended scenes (480p) available to watch individually or with the “play all” feature for the following:

- “Mr. Zebub Synopsizes “Kill the Scream Queen” Part 1” runs for 29 seconds, Bill criticizes his own acting, and his female lead’s acting, but says she was at least hot.
- “Mr. Zebub Synopsizes “Kill the Scream Queen” Part 2” runs for 32 seconds, this time he gives a much better idea of what the story behind his film is about.
- “Eric on Following Girls” runs for 1 minute and 41 seconds, our possible killer talks about his methods for observing potential victims.
- “Voyeurism and Escalation” runs for 1 minute and 25 seconds, our experts discuss how and why voyeurism can lead to violence.
- “Advertising and Reality TV” runs for 1 minute and 38 seconds, modern media plays a large role in the proliferation of voyeurism according to our experts.
- “Carol Clover on Sadism and Masochism in “Peeping Tom”” runs for 54 seconds, she discusses the difference between the two sexual standpoints.
- “The Sound Guy Strangles Debbie D.” runs for 1 minute and 6 seconds, the crew decides to fake a death scene to see how Debbie acts it out.
- “Diner Scene Part 1” runs for 1 minute and 43 seconds, Eric pitches his film idea to JT.
- “Diner Scene Part 2” runs for 2 minutes and 55 seconds, more discussion between Eric and JT about the film he wants to make.

“Underground Film Clip” (480p) runs for 7 minutes and 54 seconds, this is a segment from Toe Tag Pictures’ “August Underground Mordum” (2003) in which two people break into a man’s house, beat him with a hammer and stab him with a pair of scissors. Think of it as kindred footage to the home videos Henry & Otis shot in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1990).

“S&Man Film Trailers – Additional Eric Rost Films” (480p) presents 5 of the director’s previews for his “S&Man” series. They can be watched individually or with the “play all” feature. Included are the following:

- “S&Man Episode 6” runs for 47 seconds.
- “S&Man Episode 8” runs for 47 seconds.
- “S&Man Episode 11” runs for 49 seconds.
- “S&Man Episode 13” runs for 42 seconds.
- “S&Man Episode 14” runs for 38 seconds.

The film’s theatrical trailer (1080i) runs for 1 minute and 51 seconds.

Finally, bonus trailers (1080p) are included for the following Magnolia releases:

- “Rubber” runs for 40 seconds.
- “The Oxford Murders” runs for 2 minutes and 11 seconds.
- “Centurion” runs for 2 minutes and 6 seconds.
- “Countdown to Zero” runs for 2 minutes and 29 seconds.
- “HDNet promo” runs for 1 minute and 1 second.

Packaging

A standard amaray keepcase with some provocative cover art.

Overall

I expected something trying to be cleverer than it is, but wound up discovering one of the best unknown horror films I’ve seen in quite some time. Petty approaches his subject matter with respect, and even shows the same respect to his audience when the film veers into more fictional territory. The video & audio quality are both nothing to crow about, but given that this is a documentary that should come as little surprise. Highly recommended for all true horror fans looking to watch something different than the run-of-the-mill crap we’re served every year.

The Film: B+ Video: C+ Audio: B- Extras: B Overall: B+

 


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