I am a complete sucker for found-footage, mockumentary, verité horror movies. I just am. It's a weakness. When they're good, there's a raw immediacy that builds tension and takes away your ability to use film language to prepare yourself for the scary bits. You don't have musical cues to telegraph bad stuff happening, you don't have specific camera angles that scream out "the creature is going to jump out from here and chew their face off" or "the killer is right behind them and we're going to see that in about three seconds." Don't get me wrong, these same tools can be used to great effect in conventionally filmed horror movies (see: The Shining). But that feeling that you've stumbled across the account of someone's last days or the only evidence that something terrible happened takes away that safety valve, that "it's only a movie" defense. If the film looks like we expect documentaries to look, if we respond to it as we would a documentary, it's easier to buy into the film, to go along for the ride. We forget on some level that it isn't real until it's over and the credits roll.
So in that sense, S&Man is sort of an odd duck. I started off knowing it wasn't an authentic documentary, but felt even less like I'd seen a work of fiction afterwards. Three days later, I'm still not sure how I feel about it.
S&Man is the story of filmmaker J.T. Petty's attempt to make a documentary about voyeurism, inspired by the story of a Peeping Tom from his hometown. Petty's efforts at contacting the voyeur are met without response (go figure). He's already got footage shot and commitments to investors, so he needs to produce a movie even with an uncooperative central subject.
(There's probably an idea for an entirely different movie in there, where a documentarian becomes obsessed with filming a former voyeur, and that could be pretty cool in a Hitchcock/The Conversation kind of way. But that's another one for the "If I made it" files.)
Needing a subject for his documentary, Petty turns to the world of underground horror - low-to-no budget, often exploitation films filled with blood, gore, and tits. Even better than the idea of a voyeur and his gaze is the idea of looking at the market for simulated atrocity - what gaze does this attract? S&Man begins with footage from Peeping Tom, about a man who films women while he kills them. It was disturbing for its time, and it sets the thesis for the film - what do we get out of watching people get hurt? What is it like to see it from the perspective of the one doing the hurting? How different is simulated voyeurism from the real thing? In an attempt to answer this question, Petty goes to a horror convention to interview the people who make and purchase underground horror films, interviewing psychiatrists, film scholars, directors, and actresses. We're treated to a number of colorful characters who obviously love what they do (because they're certainly not going to get rich or larger film opportunities from doing this stuff), making movies that range from the cheesy to the questionable to the horrific.
Among all of these people, one person starts to come up again and again - a young man named Eric Rost. He's quiet, shy, a little heavy, he lives with his mother in Brooklyn. He's responsible for a series of direct-to-DVD movies called S&Man. They're artfully packaged in a minimalist style (in stark contrast to the lurid excess of other filmmakers), and the hook for these films is that they're documentary-style movies, done under the premise that the cameraman is a stalker of young women. The stalker follows a specific woman as she goes about her life, gaining more and more access to her (breaking into her apartment, for example), until finally the stalker confronts the young woman, knocks her unconscious, binds her, and murders her, filming the entire process. Each movie is subtitled with a volume number and a brief description of the woman and her murder (Sandra, Brunette, Throat Cut). Awfully specific - maybe creepily so, but one of the points Petty seems to make throughout the film is just how close much underground horror is to fetish films. If there's a demand, somebody is going to fill it, even to the point of privately commissioned "custom tapes."
As the film progresses, Petty's attempts to get straight answers out of Rost on any aspect of his films - how he auditions actresses, where the actresses could be contacted, how he gets his special effects - are met with evasiveness and a little hostility. Rost doesn't want Petty's crew to follow him while he's filming his latest addition to the series, he says it'd be better if he gave Petty's contact information to the actresses he used and yeah, he's still...in touch with them. The death scenes in Rost's movies lack any technical flair or drama - they are cold, businesslike executions and lingering shots of the motionless body for entirely too long. Rost contacts Petty by email and by phone, which is odd because Petty's phone number is unlisted. Rost is definitely hiding something, and he's up to 11 films by the time the movie starts.
Debbie D., whose take on what she's asked to do in films seems to be summed up as: It's a living, it's fun enough, and as long as they don't expect me to get seriously hurt or do anything X-rated, okay, as long as the pay's right. Petty also interviews Bill Zebub (the auteur behind Kill The Scream Queen and The Crucifier) and Fred Vogel, head of Toe Tag Films and notable for the August Underground series, probably the closest approximations to snuff films possible for works of fiction.
These interviews are character studies in and of themselves. Debbie D. harbors hopes that her career in underground horror (which seems to be predicated on nudity, and lots of it) will lead to larger film roles, and when pressed on the distinction between "hurt" and "seriously hurt", has to pause, uncertain of how to proceed. Vogel is thoughtful, well-spoken, seems to be aware of the psychological freight of the films he makes, and expresses wonder at how often people ask to be in his movies as victims, even knowing how demanding his shoots are. Zebub seems like someone who is trying to compete with people like Vogel with little success. Footage from one of the August Underground movies in which an actress actually cuts herself with a razor blade is followed by footage from one of Zebub's subsequent efforts in which he does the same thing, complete with the same closeups.
There are even stark differences in personal styles. Vogel is engaged to be married (his fiancée even plays victims in some of his films), has office space for his production company, sets and staff. Much of Zebub's talk is about masturbation and how fans of his films probably aren't good with girls. He engages in the sort of light homophobia you'd associate with a teenage boy, though he is well past adolescence. One especially depressing scene on the set of Zebub's remake of Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist (yep) has a model (not even an actress) lying topless on the bare floor of a bar for hours - not while Zebub sets up the shot, but while he drinks beer and plays around with props, waiting for inspiration (yelling out at one point "eat your heart out, August Underground!"). Eventually some half-assed wound makeup is applied, the shot is done, and the model walks out of the room, half-naked, teetering on high heels and stiff from lying on the hard floor. Nobody acknowledges her at all.
These interviews also reinforce the comparisons with fetish film - Debbie D. talks about how rough some shoots are, Vogel uses safe words on the set of the August Underground movies, and almost all of Zebub's films seem to feature naked women on crosses, regardless of relevance to the plot. And this is, most likely, what makes me uncomfortable. These films are as niche and specialized as fetish pornography, and the line between the two blurs. People clamor to be victims in Vogel's movies, Debbie D. quantifies physical exposure and physical acts, Zebub suggests that his fans masturbate to his movies (and seems to be working out some pretty specific desires himself). Likewise, the line between fiction and reality blurs - the August Underground films are shot on the premise that they are videotaped by serial killers as documents of their acts (Vogel wanted the first film to be distributed as an unlabeled videotape to heighten the effect), as are Rost's, which in the context of the overarching story start to look like they might not be fiction at all. The line between documentary and fiction blurs as Petty uses actual figures in the milieu to surround a fictional story.
Petty makes the observation that underground horror and pornography are almost mirror images of each other on a narrative level - in pornography, a real act (sex) is placed in a fictional context. In underground horror, a fictional act (murder) is placed in a realistic context. What keeps gnawing at me after watching this is that these intersections suggest that someone like Rost is not just a possibility, but an inevitability. I'm one of the last people to go wringing my hands in moral panic, but damned if I don't feel like I just looked under a rock and saw some future atrocity staring back up at me.
Available on Netflix