Movies like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism are often scoffed at – sight unseen – by horror fans, more or less because of the overwhelming amount of DTV digital handheld flicks that are dumped into the marketplace every year. Most viewers associate handheld shooting techniques with words like “cheap”, “motion-sickness”, and “Asylum”, but the truth is that those films don’t fall under the voyeuristic umbrella of cinema veritae; they just have inexperienced cinematographers manning cheap cameras, resulting in unintentional “shaky cam” that will later be said by the filmmakers to be intentional. But no other recent film has tackled the subject of what is appealing and makes them work like S&MAN, an unsettling faux-doc that will leave most feeling like they need a shower.
J.T. Petty – of The Burrowers fame – set out to make a documentary about a local Peeping Tom, and after being turned down by the subject for interviews again and again, decides to turn his attention towards more accessible experts on voyeurism, which in this case are those involved in snuff-esque horror. Visiting a Chiller Theater convention, Petty interviews genre staples like August Underground head-honcho Fred Vogel, director Bill Zebub, and Scream Queen Debbie D. While doing his preliminary research at the convention, Petty stumbles upon Eric Rost and his S&MAN – a rather clever double entendre – series. Eric’s methods are a bit unconventional, even for underground horror, as he stalks women for days or weeks, without their consent, until he approaches them about being the subject of his flicks. At first, he seems like just an odd guy who has no game and is eternally picked on, fueling his desire to stalk and kill women in his films, but as the documentary progresses, the information begins to not add up and Eric becomes more anal about giving insight into his series – of which there are fourteen volumes.
The most effective sleight of hand that Petty uses in S&MAN is that it has a 80/20 mix of fact vs. fiction, blurring the line of reality even further on a subject that is confused with actual snuff films by those not in the know (Vogel recalls run-ins with the cops during production on some UA films). Sure, most are made with the expressed intent of being sexual fetish films for those who frequent the Hellfire Club in NYC, but aside from all the S&M, they’re essentially a legal way for people to be Peeping Toms. While all films attempt to pull you in and put you in the thick of things, the character of the camera in cinema veritae is YOU, the viewer. Whether it be Cloverfield, or even more conventional films like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer and Peeping Tom, you’re supposed to be along for the ride as the camera; they subliminally give you a starring role as the bird’s eye view, and you forget that you’re watching a film. The exploration and discussion of this ideology is extremely interesting, and somewhat unsettling, especially pertaining to the subject matter. Like any horror film, most viewers will find themselves trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t, and after an interview with Vogel about what they actually did to participants during a few films, the line was further blurred for me.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give S&MAN is that while viewing the faux-doc about voyeurism, the viewer becomes a voyeur themselves as Petty further investigates Rost’s methods. You’re invading someone’s life who is, in turn, invading other unsuspecting people’s lives, and yet, you can’t take your eyes off of it, even once you realize that. That is, indeed, the greatest trick of all.
However, the in-depth nature of the film also leads to its greatest downfall, which is unless you are completely in the dark about really brutal underground horror, Eric Rost will stick out like a sore thumb. Even for someone like me, who has no interest whatsoever in these kinds of flicks (sorry, I don’t get off on feces being injected into labias, but to each his own), I knew right off the bat that the guy wasn’t actually making the series. However low-brow you may think August Underground or Bill Zebub is, as a horror fan, there’s a fairly big chance that you’ve at least heard of these guys. However, when taking that, and the fact that most of the footage here would’ve been marked as police evidence long ago, into consideration, you really can’t hold it against the film too much. After all, that is the nature of these kinds of films, isn’t it?
If you’ve ever watched a horror film, been creeped out by it, and haven’t really been able to put into words why, then S&MAN is a must-watch for you. Not only is it a really good surface conversation about why using the camera as a character in horror taps into unexplored urges, it also gives unknown actor Eric Marcisak a chance to shine as the creepy and unhinged Eric Rost and proves that Petty is a director to look out for.