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Movie Review: S&Man

Man looking through window at woman undressing

(This film was sent to the Underground Film Journal as a screener copy from the 2010 Spooky Movie Film Festival, which runs Oct. 21-25.)

Why do we watch? Horror movies, that is. It’s a question I think about from time to time as it’s unofficially my favorite genre of film. Scary. Gross. Spooky. Stupid. There are several types of horror movies and I enjoy all of them. Yep, even the stupid ones are somehow comforting to watch.

Horror filmmaker J.T. Petty has asked himself the same question and he goes in search of an answer in his documentary S&Man. There are some questionable and potentially controversial aspects to Petty’s investigations that I’m going to write about openly even though they might be considered spoilers.

If you haven’t seen the film and are interested in watching it, I recommend doing so without knowing too much ahead of time. That’s how I viewed it and I found it very entertaining and provocative in the way that it made me start to think about my own interest in watching people get dismembered, disemboweled, decapitated, tortured, abused, cut, sliced, chainsawed, etc.

(By the way, for those wondering, the film explains that the title is pronounced as “Sandman,” but I still think of it as three words: S And Man.)

Petty intones in the beginning of the film that he finagled some money out of HDNet Films to make a documentary about a peeping tom who terrorized his neighborhood when he was a kid. But, when that idea didn’t pan out, instead he focused his gaze on the world of what he calls “underground horror.”

It’s questionable if this subculture that Petty hesitatingly dives into is even “horror” at all. Instead, there are filmmakers out there who unabashedly make films glorifying the rape and the torturing of women. They’re like snuff films that are too chicken to go all the way. And they all justify it as, well, nobody’s really getting hurt, everybody in these films are participating willingly and they’re just giving certain people what they want to see.

But, why judge? What makes “above ground” horror any better or worse than “underground” horror?

Well, to find out, Petty mostly focuses his attention on three underground horror directors. One, Fred Vogel, is coherent and thoughtful. Another, Bill Zebub — who describes rape as “exciting” — is not. And the third, well, I’ll write about the third in a minute.

Petty includes lots of footage from these director’s films and these clips will either pique your interest or swear you to stay away forever. I haven’t seen either of the directors’ films and I’m currently not intending to.

Although Petty never gives his personal opinion about these guys’ work, one gets the feeling that he likes it and it’s a mixture of attraction and revulsion that set his documentary’s theme into motion. And the film never feels like he’s advocating on these types of films’ behalf, to say that they are worthy and important works of art, but just to show us that they exist and are only an extreme version of the type of violence seen in regular mainstream action movies and TV dramas these days.

Now I’m about to get into spoilery territory…

The third filmmaker that Petty profiles is the titular S&Man, who produces DVDs of himself stalking and killing women. The S&Man is a chubby, seemingly good-natured if socially awkward single guy who says he spies on potential victims with his video camera until he eventually approaches them and asks them if they’d like to be in his faux snuff video. Strangely, the women all say yes.

Well, not so strange when you realize that Petty is completely putting us on.

The S&Man is a total invention by Petty, yet the documentary and fictional portions of the film blend together seamlessly. Plus, one never gets the feeling that Petty is trying to get one over on his audience, even though the film doesn’t say outright that one of the interview subjects is an actor playing a role.

Including a fictional character is just another tool in Petty’s arsenal to explore the appeal of watching death and violence in film. It’s a risky gambit that threatens to turn off some viewers who may feel cheated, but Petty pulls it all off successfully since the motivations for his strategy are authentic.

But, the questions still remains: Why do we watch? I don’t know if any answer would ever be satisfactory. Petty does interview some obligatory experts, but beyond just giving textbook definitions of deviant behavior, I can’t say they really offer any significant answers, either.

Perhaps nobody can or ever will, but S&Man at least has a fun, provocative time asking the right questions.

Watch the S&Man movie trailer:


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