A part of me knows and has always known that I watch horror because I want to be in charge of my own trauma. Watching the endless talent-show parade of death and despair provided by the average horror film gives me control over myself and my fear that helps me move through the world. It becomes an instrument, a recording, a ritual through which all the anxieties and little agonies of life can be exorcised and left on the screen. Turn on. Terror. Turn off. Life.
I think that’s why JT Petty’s S&Man affects me so much. Coming off of his deeply disturbing experimental debut Soft for Digging, JT Petty got a firsthand look at horror film conventions and discovered a dirty secret: independently produced, hyper-specific, extreme horror movies produced by filmmakers like Toe Tag productions and Bill Zebub. Inspired, Petty decides to make a documentary on this transgressive fringe of the horror genre. These movies, unlike more mainstream efforts, are shot on video, sold at conventions and online, and feature the unique selling point of incredibly realistic gore, disturbing violence, and low production value. Also at the convention is indie filmmaker Eric, selling his stalk-and-slash videos, the titular S&Man series.
There are interviews with the filmmakers themselves, stars, scholars including Carol Clover, author of the seminal classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws, and psychologists all trying to get the answers to why these films sell so well, to why they exist at all. As Petty goes deeper and spends more time with Eric, however, his films unsettle him more than the others.
It’s here that I beg you, if any of that sounds interesting, to go check out this movie. It’s impossible not to talk about this movie in depth without spoiling the prestige of its magic trick, and so, if you want to see it unspoiled, go now.
JT Petty seemingly does the impossible in S&Man by concealing a fictional horror story into this documentary. While the Toe Tag team and Bill Zebub are both very real, very unsettling branches of the horror tree, Eric is a fabrication invented for the film. His interactions with Petty are a controlled descent into an unusual hell, in which the unassuming, pasty Eric is the true devil.
This assault on the understanding of documentary and fiction shocks the viewer to the core in the same way Blair Witch Project shocked its first audiences. The film is so informative and rich in its initial objective, in its documentary style, that the reveal of its hidden horror movie lifted me out of my chair at first viewing.
Despite its conceit, the film is a serviceable documentary of horror’s outlaws, for good or ill. The gore FX-reel quality of Toe Tag films like the August Underground series and the blatant, intentional perversity of Bill Zebub’s movies, whose titles you can look up yourself if interested, can leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. The academic juxtaposition of Carol Clover and the psychological experts does quite a bit to soften the impact, but the clips from Toe Tag and Zebub challenge even the hardest veterans of horror.
All in all, S&Man is a marvel of technical filmmaking with an exciting twist that demands an almost immediate re-watch, if you can stomach it. S&Man dissolves the wall between the controlled demolition of your own trauma provided by most horror films, and the wanton, chaotic destruction of real life. For that trick, Petty can count his film amongst the most inventive horror movies in recent years.
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