Starring J.T. Petty, Fred Vogel, Bill Zebub, Dr. Richard Krueger, Meg Kaplan, Professor Carol J. Clover, Eric Rost
Directed by J.T. Petty
When I first heard that Soft For Digging director J.T. Petty was working on a documentary for HD Net that focused on the underground horror movement, I was intrigued. The extreme, low budget, sometimes cheese-filled horror that populates the underground is a subject rarely touched on outside of the occasional article in Rue Morgue, so it was interesting to hear about an already established filmmaker digging just a bit deeper into it.
The film, S&Man, recently played Austin's infamous South by Southwest festival, and shortly after the fest ended Petty contacted me to see if I’d be interested in a review copy. Of course I jumped on it; I just had to see what this film was like, and I’m happy to say my expectations were met, exceeded, and turned on their ear all at the same time.
Petty opens with a story from his childhood. Growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., he experienced voyeurism nearly first-hand when one of the men in his neighbor was found to be in possession of dozens of long-play VHS tapes of various neighborhood residents doing all manner of things, from the common to the bizarre. The man was brought up on charges, but as soon as those who had been videoed found out that the tapes of their personal lives would be shown in court as evidence, all charges were dropped. It seems they’d rather only one voyeur know what went on behind their closed doors rather than an entire courtroom. The man still lives in the same house to this day.
Originally, Petty planned to make a documentary about voyeurism, the focal point of which would be this man’s strange story, but he adamantly refused to take part in the doc in any way, shape, or form. Still needing to make something but without a specific focus, Petty turned his eye to underground horror and was ultimately able to get August Underground creator/star Fred Vogel, Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist director Bill Zebub as well as one his "scream queens", and up and coming undergrounder Eric Rost to talk about their films. Their side of the tale is juxtaposed with the opinions of sexologist Meg Kaplan, forensic psychiatrist Richard Kruger (husband and wife), and Men, Women, and Chain Saws author Carol J. Clover, PhD. It makes for an entertaining back-and-forth as some of more popular films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer have their subtleties examined, while Fred Vogel explains why he enjoys covering his stars in blood and shit.
At the start of the doc, Petty attends the spring 2005 Chiller convention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where he meets Eric Rost, ultimately the most memorable subject of the entire film. Already on his 11th volume of S&Man (pronounced "Sandman"), Rost is a filmmaker of a different and far creepier breed; he follows girls around for days, sometimes weeks, breaks into their apartment, and eventually kidnaps and murders them on-camera. At first Rost insists he follows them for a bit before getting their permission to film in the rest, which he also insists is completely fictional from start to finish. Though Rost stars, he says he is a character in the film.
Numerous inquires about talking to some of the girls allegedly dispatched on camera are dodged, and as the film progresses Rost’s personality seems to get creepier and creepier. We’re never sure what Eric is actually doing, what his intentions are when he starts following the eventual victims, or what it is, exactly, that Petty wants us to feel about him other than the obvious fact that he’s a creepy, mom’s basement-dweller who’s obviously not had much luck with the ladies.
It’s not all about Rost, however; in fact his story doesn’t really come to life until the third act. Oddly enough (or not if you know how these horror people work in general), Fred Vogel and his Toe Tag Pictures crew come across as the most normal, well adjusted of the lot. Vogel is intelligent and well spoken and obviously has a great love for what he does. If you’ve ever seen any August Underground films, you may understand why he’s so seemingly normal; all his aggressions are released on screen... and then some.
Zebub, on the other hand, is certainly the most unapologetic of the group. To sum him up perfectly, I will use one of his own lines: "I’m not a cinematographer, I don’t shoot these movies to be pieces of cinema. I shoot them so perverts give me money". Gotta love that kind of honesty!
I don’t think there’s a single shot of him on-screen when he’s not holding a beer, and the "films" that he makes are the crudest of our genre with boobs, blood, cheap effects, and really bad acting. At the same time, though, Zebub does come across as someone who really is doing something he enjoys, and even if it’s not enough to make him rich, it’s apparently sufficient to keep his beer supply fully stocked.
The whole film serves as a glimpse into a strange other world. Keep this in mind when I say "strange"; I’m embedded in this genre every single day, and S&Man still managed to feature people and ideas that I’d never heard before. Sure, the common theories about why we watch horror movies and the release we feel when we see violence done to others are in place, but S&Man is about more than that; it’s about the line that some people think has never and should never be crossed. It asks the question of just how much more depraved horror cinema can get before we’re seeing real people really get killed onscreen.
My only complaint is that it would’ve been nice if Petty had managed to get a more varied bunch of interview subjects. He works well with the people he had access to, however, and creates an intelligent and entertaining piece of documentary cinema that is probably unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Ultimately what Petty has managed to do with S&Man is produce a film that is both an interesting, discerning look at the most extreme (or, in the case of Bill Zebub, the cheapest) of our genre and at the same time a possible encounter with someone who has stepped beyond the realm of fiction and into the criminal. Is Petty using the documentary format to perhaps manipulate the viewer into believing that Rost is actually killing girls, or is it merely a case of showing us what he wants us to see? That’s something you’re going to have to figure out for yourself, but no matter what opinion you’ve formed by the final few minutes, I can virtually guarantee you one thing; the ending will fuck you up, plain and simple.
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