S&Man opens ambitiously with a clip from a murder scene in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, the once-notorious exploration of moviegoing as ultimate voyeuristic fulfillment of untapped, queasy desires. Writer-director J.T. Petty tells us in voiceover that the project that would eventually become S&Man was originally conceived as a look at a peeper who lived near his childhood home in Washington, DC. Petty recalls stumbling upon a camera pointed at a neighbor's house, which led to the discovery of hundreds of hours of filmed footage of the neighborhood, which, in turn, led to an understandable indictment. The indictment was thrown out, however, when the community learned that the material was going to have to be shown in court. Petty says that he, strangely, respects this man who blurred the lines between voyeurism and filmmaking, art, and personal invasion. The peeper wasn't so interested in having the cameras turned on him though, and so Petty's film, which had already received financing from one of Mark Cuban's companies, was suddenly without a subject.
Scrambling, Petty quickly shifts gears to three directors living on the edge of horror filmmaking—specialists in rough fetish stuff that's mostly sold online and at gatherings, stuff that's meant to simulate the ultimate taboo of the market: the snuff film, which theoretically features real murder and sexual violation. Fred Vogel, who runs Toe Tag Productions, is the most ingratiating of the three, as he seems to be fairly well-adjusted when he isn't shooting footage of people vomiting or defecating or killing or screwing one another. (He even has a fiancée—a collaborator and frequent victim.) Bill Zebub, who at times appears to be envious of Vogel, is a beer-guzzling wannabe bad boy who seems to model his appearance on Rob Zombie. Zebub, whose titles include Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist and Assmonster: The Making of a Horror Movie, specializes in rape/crucifixion imagery with big-breasted victims. The last director, Eric Rost, is the most troubling of the three. The creator of a series called S&Man, Rost films himself as he follows various women, which eventually culminates in their simulated murder. Eric, the testiest and weirdest of the film's subjects, refuses to come clean as to whether his subjects have actually agreed to the filming. Eric, in other words, could be a real stalker.
Vogel and Zebub are real (though I assume their footage here is also scripted), while Rost is a character created by Petty and played by Erik Marcisak. Rost is clearly meant as an homage to Peeping Tom, and as a continuation of the peeper analogy, which is meant to embody some of the unsettling art-or-not questions that haunt the horror film; particularly these disturbing fringe oddities, which appear to revel in basically getting off on cruelty and debasement and, most of all, invasion, which plays to an illusion of control.
More specifically, S&Man is interested in the horror film in general as a perverse bridge between the genders. The directors of these pictures are usually men who, it can be safely assumed, have problems socially, not to mention romantically, with the opposite sex. The horror film business, even on this low rung on the distribution ladder, presents the socially ill-advised with the chance to work with well-endowed women who frequently fool themselves as to what these appearances might mean in the grand scheme of their career. Many horror films, especially the slasher, are staged as implicit wars of the sexes, with have-nots viciously murdering the haves, giving release to those who might resent their place in the social pecking order of things. S&Man stresses that the creation of these movies logically serves an even more intimate catharsis for the director: These men, who have a tendency to look like serial killers themselves, get to interact with physically idealized women as they contort them to fit the demeaning images of their dreams.
But it's thornier than that: Taking off from Carol Clover's influential Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, S&Man acknowledges that both genders are getting something out of these films—that the victim/killer relationship (or director/actress) is more complicated and mutually rewarding. (Vogel testifies at one point to the number of women contacting him to die in his films.) The film is onto something here—a working-class view of the symbiotic relationship between director and actress in the film business and its parallel with the fantasies of the viewers. The best, saddest, most telling scene has Zebub getting drunk on his set and fiddling with props, forcing his model to wait for hours on the floor with her ass exposed to half a dozen patrons of the bar. The model's bored look says it all, and an underlying impotence of this slash/dice/fuck subgenre is savagely parodied.
But Petty doesn't trust this material enough; he shoehorns interviews with real professionals—including Clover—to bolster the documentary gimmick, which he doesn't need. Petty's fictional director, Eric Rost, is unfortunately the least interesting of the three, an obvious invention. Despite a surprisingly convincing performance by Marcisak, we know there's no way that Rost is actually some kind of head case, which means that all the cheesy buildup is a waste of time. Vogel and Zebub embody the uncomfortable ambiguities of the horror film, which is a way of safely flirting with death, of allowing its possibility to turn you on. Mainstream or not, the horror film is a way of—even subconsciously—grappling with death's inevitability. Petty, a talented director (The Burrowers deserves a wider audience, and his direct-to-DVD Mimic sequel is an inventive little Rear Window cash-in) allows the true S&Man to elude him here.