"I'm not a cinematographer. I don't shoot these movies to be a piece of cinema. I shoot it so perverts give me money."
S&Man opens with a story about someone looking out a
S&Man is about the collision of voyeurism and technology -- about empowering people to live out their darkest, most demented fantasies through the eyes of a camera lens. There's briefly some discussion about the voyeuristic nature of mainstream horror: the first-person perspective of the kill that opens Halloween, the rough-hewn, documentary-like approach to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, a film whose title says it all, really. These are films that, at least to a point, implicate the audience. They're not just passive, distant onlookers but are part of these movies. S&Man doesn't get too caught up in conversations about movies you've already heard of...that sort of thing is better left for a film class term paper anyway. No, that's just the setup. This documentary is far more fascinated by the underground horror movement. These movies don't just push the boundaries; they eviscerate the boundaries, gouge out its eyes, and skullfuck whatever's left.
There is some context added in by experts in sexual deviancy and from an author who'd written at length about the role of gender in horror. Mostly, though, S&Man focuses on a handful of the people who actually make these underground horror flicks. There's scream queen Debbie D, who specializes in custom videos. A customer forks over a couple grand, lays out some outlandish fetish or scenario, and she'll strip down and star in a movie about it: clone fucking, skewered navels, drowning in quicksand, fucking open wounds, throngs of women vomiting while making out, smearing feces into a gaping wound...you get the idea. Bill Zebub -- apparently his legal name these days -- churns out fetish movies like Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist that has the son of God masturbating with that gaping hole in his hand. Zebub, in keeping with his stage name, seems fascinated by the combination of sex, violence, and religion, and imagery of topless women being crucified seems to seep into quite a few of his movies. There's also the crew of Toe Tag Productions. They're the most polished outfit of the bunch -- professional makeup effects, a proper studio, and all that -- but the movies they hammer out look to be by far the most extreme. Their mission statement seems to be to get as close as possible to capturing murder and mutilation on camera without anyone actually winding up in the morgue. It's not all for show either; one
S&Man is most intensely focused around underground filmmaker Eric Rost, and it's his "S&Man" movies (pronounced "sandman") that give the documentary its title. As Rost tells it, he walks around Brooklyn with a camcorder seeking out a woman who'll catch his eye. When he finds a mark, he stalks her for weeks on end...learning her haunts and habits. At some point, he invites her to be a part of one of his movies, and inevitably, she's bound, gagged, tortured, and eventually butchered. The "S&Man" videos are shot from a first-person perspective, as if the viewer is the one clutching onto the camcorder. There is no narration and next-to-no discernable dialogue. The victim is the 'star', and the only time anyone else of note appears on-screen is Rost himself when he sets down the camera to close in for the kill. Rost constantly gives conflicting explanations about how his movies are shot: how long he follows his victims, how much he's invading their privacy, how many of them actually agree to be part of these videos, and...well, whether or not he's actually hacking them apart. Rost becomes fascinated with J.T. Petty, S&Man's director, looking at him as a gateway to producing a more mainstream horror flick. Eventually, it feels as if Petty is as much a subject of his own documentary as any of the underground horror directors are.
The question S&Man asks, not surprisingly, is "why?" There is no answer, at least not one that's offered up here, but the search for one is kind of the point. That's one of the many ways in which S&Man veers away from a conventional documentary. It doesn't chart the progress of some kind of event. There's not much of a narrative or arc. No definitive conclusions are drawn. It doesn't bother with some sort of thesis statement to set the whole thing up. No, it seeks out a few potentially fascinating subjects and just observes, in much the way a voyeur would. These underground horror movies are made to incorporate the viewer into the mayhem; accordingly, Petty incorporates himself as a character in his own documentary. He doesn't seek out the target audience for these sorts of videos, instead letting the audience of S&Man play that part.
Most documentaries immediately establish what they're about and spend the remainder of their runtime exploring that topic. After just a couple of minutes, you generally know what you're going to be watching for the next hour and a half. S&Man really isn't like that at all. It doesn't stick to the traditional documentary structure. It's very aware of its audience's expectations. I didn't feel as if I could really appreciate S&Man until it was over. I had my "oh, I get it now" flash and recognized just how brilliantly clever the construction of the film is...I just needed to see the movie in full to put it all in that sort of context. The question for most people reading this will be whether or not you can stomach the journey to get there. My life pretty much revolves around horror, but the appeal for me tends to be claustrophobic suspense and deliriously over-the-top splatter. The tension in my favorite movies tends to be cinematic, while the gore is cartoonishly extreme...I love both ends of that spectrum. The entire point of the underground horror movement, at least as it's presented here, is to not be like that at all. It's fetishistic. It's unrelentingly brutal. It's in making these dark fantasies seem as unnervingly, unflinchingly realistic as possible. I can take a head being split down the middle by a machete because it's so far removed from anything I can imagine, but a realistic depiction of torture or suffering...I take no pleasure in that whatsoever. It's not a moral thing; I've just gotten to be kind of a wuss in my old age, I guess. That sort of extreme brutality being the focus of these underground movies and all, I had a really tough time watching S&Man. I absolutely respect and admire what's being accomplished here, but its extreme subject matter is more than I'm wired to handle. Why am I going on about this, though? You already made it past "fucking open wounds" and "throngs of women vomiting while making out" in the synopsis, so chances are you're the target demographic. Recommended.
I don't have the DVD of S&Man in front of me to do a direct comparison, but I really wouldn't expect this to be much of a step up. Even the interviews that are properly lit and all don't look particularly high-def to me. I definitely don't think the Blu-ray disc is worth the $7 premium over the DVD it's currently going for on Amazon as I write this. I'm sure this Blu-ray disc is a faithful presentation and that a lot of its lackluster appearance is deliberate, even, but still, keep your expectations in check. Even at its best, this is one of the worst looking Blu-ray discs I've ever come across.
The flipside of the case lists an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, but nope. There's no letterboxing at all: just straightahead 1.78:1. S&Man has been encoded with AVC.
The soundtrack on S&Man has some impressively cinematic technical specs -- 24-bit, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and all -- but that same rough-hewn, homebrew aesthetic pretty much applies here too. The sound design really doesn't take all that much advantage of the six-channel setup. J.T. Petty's booming narration roars from all five speakers at once rather than being discretely placed in the center. Even more strangely, the narration is mixed so high that it sounds detached from the movie itself; I seriously thought I'd accidentally selected an audio commentary or something at first. The folks being interviewed have a tendency to emerge from all three front channels. Some of their conversations sound a little clipped, and background noise creeps in at times. Some swirling voices and scattered effects have been tossed into the surround channels, but the rears are mostly used to echo whatever's happening up-front and to further flesh out the instrumentation in S&Man's really effective score. Being a documentary and all, nothing happens in the film itself that screams out for a low-frequency assault, but again, the score definitely keeps the subwoofer snarling with waves of thick, substantial bass.
Commentaries aside, there aren't any other soundtracks: no dubs or downmixes this time around. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH) and Spanish.
Aside from S&Man's high-def theatrical trailer, all of the extras on this Blu-ray disc are presented in standard definition.
The Final Word
My kneejerk reaction to S&Man as I was watching it was kinda indifferent, but once the end credits popped up and I could see the bigger picture, I have to admit that it's pretty brilliant. Most documentaries have a clear, distinct narrative. There are arcs...a beginning, middle, and end. S&Man, on the other hand, is a documentary about voyeurism through a camera lens. Like its subjects, it observes. It's much too busy watching to bother making some kind of definitive conclusion. This is a film about perception, and it manipulates that in ways I would never have expected.
Even with as much of a frothing-at-the-mouth horror fanatic as I am, though, I have to admit that I still find S&Man extremely difficult to watch just because the underground horror it's rooted around is so far out there. I can deal with arms being lopped off because it's so cartoonish and detached from reality, but these snuff-like home videos of rape and torture...that's kind of a different beast altogether. Because of that, I respect and admire S&Man but can't say that I particularly enjoyed it. If you're still reading after all that, though, chances are you'll find this Blu-ray disc at least worth a rental. S&Man is such a difficult movie to watch that I'm kind of hesitant to recommend buying it sight-unseen, especially considering that its rough-hewn aesthetic really doesn't translate to Blu-ray all that well. Despite all that, it's a well-assembled package, and I respect the movie enough that S&Man still comes Recommended.