Film Review: S&Man (2006)

I am a horror fan. I make no apologies for it. I was drawn into the genre at an early age by a whole string of events and haven’t looked back. Yet, there is a subgenre that I never really grew to like. Call it what you want: exploitation, snuff, gorefests. It’s not for me. I don’t see the appeal in lining up and gutting victims with no story.

The documentary S&Man by horror filmmaker/author J.T. Petty is a film about this very subject. While he initially intended to film the true story of a voyeur in his neighborhood, he is forced to shift his focus. The voyeur–a man who filmed everyone in the town for months and months without permission–refused to be in the film. The only reason the man never faced criminal charges was the requirement that the video footage be screened publically and the townspeople didn’t want to watch it. Petty instead debates whether or not a horror fan could tell the difference between low-budget gore/exploitation films and real life horror, like the footage of a secluded voyeur.

Petty uses interviews with a horror film expert (Prof. Carol J. Clover, PhD), a pair of doctors specializing in sexual deviancy (Meg Kaplan, PhD and Dr. Richard Krueger), a dating writing/directing/special effects team (Fred Vogel and Christie Whiles), a one-man guerrilla filmmaking team (Eric Rost), a scream queen (Debbie D), and a low-budget exploitation filmmaker (Bill Zebub) to explore his subject. Debbie D reveals that she is willing to do anything that isn’t full-blown pornography to meet the demands of custom film orders. Bill Zebub explains the fan mindset of titillation and the necessity of beautiful, naked women. Vogel and Whiles detail how they create their own effects, including Whiles actually cutting herself with a knife and inducing vomiting for films. Clover discusses the history of the sub-genre and the various theories on why we watch horror. Rost shows evidence of his methods of finding the perfect scream queen in everyday society. Kaplan and Krueger explore the psychology of extreme fetishes and how the lack of acceptance in society curtails the ability to treat any threatening abnormalities.

The undercurrent of the film is Petty’s desire to find an actual snuff film. Each of the expert interview subjects mentions the rumors or footage they’ve seen that has to be real. One of the more interesting recurring themes of S&Man is real footage. Clover describes many of the early films–Edison’s elephant electrocution, recreations of assassinations and executions–and how popular they were to add legitimacy to the claim that the desire to watch extreme violence and death is not an invention of horror or exploitation films.

Perhaps the most effective sequence in the film is watching Clover describe the Abu Ghraib torture photographs and a video of a beheading before Petty asks the other experts their opinions; the real footage does nothing for the diehard gore fans and filmmakers as it is not as sensationalized, or sexualized, as the films they watch and create.

J.T. Petty crosses the lens repeatedly in the film. He starts as a narrator, explaining what his intentions are and how S&Man came to be. During interviews, he assumes the role of an almost-silent investigator, letting his interview subjects talk at great length about general prompts, occasionally mumbling an extra comment or question for further discussion. He also has a camera crew follow him as he visits a horror convention and his interview guests. There are scenes of festival screenings, interviews, film sets, introductions, and behind the scenes meetings that demonstrate Petty’s passion for the genre. He is not content to sit back as an impartial observer; he wants to get his hands dirty and mingle with the people who make it so that he can keep filming horror as a career.

While the digital footage is clear enough for the purposes of this documentary, the sound design is problematic. I’m willing to accept that Petty wanted the interviews to be all about the subjects; however, if he is going to mix his occasional comment into the interview scene, it needs to be audible. If it’s not audible, there needs to be a subtitle. It is a distraction. By the time you figure out his comment or question, you’ve missed the more important response.

The other major problem with the sound design is the score. While the steady haunting vibraphones add a level of eeriness to certain scenes, they rarely leave the mix. It is almost omnipresent. About a third of the way into the film, it becomes a major distraction. When I can hear the original score but not all of the dialog, there is a failure to execute a proper sound mix.

S&Man is nothing without the controversy surrounding the film. It features many staged scenes that constantly bring the film’s thesis to the forefront. The revelation of what is real and what is not upsets people who wanted everything in the documentary to be real; however, the fiction is the crux of the film.

If Petty is really going to explore whether or not fans of the genre can tell the difference between reality and fiction, he has to inject manufactured material into the film. Through clever editing, it appears that each of the interview subjects is commenting on everything mentioned in the film–they don’t. One person will comment on a method of binding a victim before another person comments on footage of a victim being bound and another person discusses how a great actress works through that discomfort. They are not always talking about the same film project. They are discussing their own experiences with this kind of film. While I thought this method was quite clear the whole way through, others are left outraged.

If you go through film message boards or read published reviews, you will see people denounce the film for lying or cheating. The argument is, if it doesn’t just use real footage, it can’t be a documentary.

I believe this is a short-sighted viewpoint. If Petty didn’t make a documentary because footage was created to prove his point, then any documentary that ever used reenactments is lying and cheating, too. That means any film that is not 100% comprised of actual historical film footage is fake and deserves a horrible review. I don’t see these same critics or viewers frothing at the mouth over a historical reenactment in a documentary about World War I or Alexander the Great.

While Petty takes it a step further in injecting short manufactured narrative into his film, the function is still the same. Everything is used as evidence to argue his case. Even the fictional shorts within the film are backed up by expert testimony time and again. It is no different than a documentary on an actress using footage from her films to prove a point about her personal life. S&Man could stand on its own as a documentary short without the additional narrative. It would just leave the film without anything new to say.

I am not saying that people don’t have a right to be upset by this documentary. The reveal of what is real is as chilling as any final scare in a horror film. It betrays the trust we put in the narrator–since when do we trust horror film narrators, anyway? At the same time, it confirms everything he promised us. You want to watch a film about whether or not a real snuff film could exist? You just did and you fell for it. Now you’re mad that the film used poorly produced fiction–the same caliber as the films you enjoy in the genre–to prove that point. That means Petty accomplished his goal as a documentarian.

If watching S&Man makes you mad, don’t be mad at the film; be mad at yourself for blindly following the quest for a real snuff film. This documentary does what any good documentary should do. It confronts the viewer with a real topic in a way that forces him to reflect on his own stance on the subject. Horror fans shouldn’t be immune because they’re rarely asked to think about why they watch what they watch.

Rating: 8/10