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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » S&Man (Blu-ray)
S&Man (Blu-ray)
Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // October 12, 2010 // Region A
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 7, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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"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."
- Bill Zebub (try saying it out loud if you don't get it)

S&Man opens with a story about someone looking out a
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bedroom window and spotting a tiny red light off in the distance. It was a video camera, and the trail led back to a peeping tom who had close to two hundred tapes peeking inside dozens of different homes. So, what happened? Was the guy chucked in prison for at least a couple of months? Did they run him screaming out of town? Nope. The entire community banded together and agreed to do nothing. Taking him to court would've meant that these videos would be a matter of public record...that its victims' most private moments would be exposed. No, this peeping tom got off scot free. He moved back into his old house as if nothing had ever happened and, at least as of the time S&Man was being produced, was still living there a couple decades later. Interestingly enough, that voyeur opted not to be a part of this documentary; he didn't want the camera turned around to face him.

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
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of their movies features a cutter slicing her arm open, sparking Bill Zebub to do the same to himself to keep up. Again, the intent with all this is to allow the viewers to live out their darkest fantasies...to make them feel as if they're the ones seizing hold of that knife...or alien cock or whatever else happens to be on the menu tonight.

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.
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Petty even makes the struggle to produce this documentary a key point, running low on his advance and losing out on the person he'd hoped would be the linchpin of the entire story. Much like the brutal underground horror frequently excerpted throughout, S&Man itself has a rough, homemade aesthetic to it, sometimes feeling more like a series of home movies than a proper documentary. Its focus is so heavily placed on the idea of observation...of perception...and Petty explores that in some extremely unconventional ways as well.

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.

There's nothing
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all that cinematic about S&Man. Its primary focus is on how the lens of the camera can serve as the eyes of a voyeur, and its shaky, handheld camerawork definitely heightens that. Aside from an excerpt from J.T. Petty's Soft for Digging, the underground horror featured here has all been shot on low-end standard-def video...sometimes literally on camcorders. Presented in 1080i, S&Man matches that framerate rather than going the more traditional 24p route. The documentary is meant to look like video, which adds a certain level of immediacy to it that wouldn't have worked with locked-down, polished camerawork. S&Man's photography complements the tone and feel of the movie really well, but this isn't a disc you'll want to grab off the shelf to show what your overpriced home theater rig can do. The bulk of the movie is extremely soft, with the talking head interviews often cast in a warm, diffused glow. Clarity is weak and lacking in pretty much anything resembling fine detail. Even the HD-sourced video is riddled with compression artifacts. The brief excerpts from the better known genre fare -- Peeping Tom, Halloween, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre -- have all been upconverted...and from ancient, analog video, even, by the looks of it. The snippets of underground horror expectedly look rough as well: soft, noisy, and pixelated, the same as they were originally shot.

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.

  • Audio Commentaries: S&Man features two commentary tracks, both of which are newly-recorded. First up is a conversation between director J.T. Petty and "S&Man" mastermind Eric Rost. S&Man didn't exactly end with the two of them on the best of terms, and even five years later, that hostility is intense enough for it to still wind up being the driving force behind this commentary. It's revealed that there was a legal settlement between Rost and the producers, and that's a frequent topic of discussion. Rost is bitter about the "S&Man" title he created being swiped for this doc and lobs out numerous accusations of theft and shameless self-promotion against Petty. He compares S&Man to a slasher movie itself...one in which he's the Final Girl and Petty is the doc's version of Freddy Krueger. He pitches more movie ideas, including one combining nuns, toxic waste, Indians, and zombies that...yeah, I'd be in line for on day one. There's also more about what he's been up to for the past
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    five years and the direction he thinks horror ought to take. I really like the concept, but it's pretty much nothing but Rost tearing into J.T. Petty, and it's kinda tough to keep that momentum going for an hour and a half straight. It's worth a spin, but it starts to feel kind of stale around halfway through.

    The other commentary with J.T. Petty and Erik Marcisak is much, much more substantial. I don't think I'd feel comfortable delving too deeply into it here, but the short version is that it discusses the way S&Man's narrative was shaped and the way its subjects are presented. Among the other highlights are the challenges that reared their head during post-production, how the documentary serves as a kind of time capsule in those dark days before YouTube and Facebook, Bill Zebub frowning on having S&Man's cameras around for his werewolf rape, and how no one in New York bothers to pay attention to what anyone around 'em is saying or doing...including a couple of cops the next booth over as Eric Rost is yapping over his Denver omelette about murder. This one's a pretty much essential listen.

  • Deleted and Extended Scenes (12 min.; SD): The reel of deleted and extended scenes opens with more of one of Bill Zebub's movies. There's also some conversation about the possiblity of paraphelia leading to more direct sexual assaults, and another memorable sequence talks about the voyeuristic aspects of modern advertising and reality television. Eric Rost is very much the focus of a few of these scenes, speaking more about the stalking that goes into his "S&Man" videos and some interweaving of Eric's conversations with comments about sexual deviancy. The last and by far the longest of the scenes in this reel is a greatly extended breakfast with the filmmakers and Eric, and here we do get to hear more about the movie he was so aggressively pitching to J.T. Petty.

  • The Complete S&Man - Episode 11 (27 min.; SD): This installment of Eric Rost's "S&Man" series is the most heavily excerpted in the documentary, and it's presented here in full: Eric's extended stalking of his prey, breaking into her apartment to swipe her hair and blood, stripping away her identity through some kind of voodoo ritual, and then binding, gagging, and murdering her. For those who haven't already seen the documentary, the camera generally captures everything from Eric's P.O.V. except when he sets it down to go in for the attack.

  • Underground Film Clip (8 min.; SD): One of the most memorable movies excerpted in S&Man is "August Underground's Mortem". A longer version of that is offered here as well: dark, gritty camcorder footage of a couple of people ransacking a junkie's apartment, mutilating the corpses, and one girl actually cutting herself.

  • Trailers: Last up are a high definition theatrical trailer for S&Man and standard-def teasers for five of Eric Rost's videos.

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.
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