In his refreshingly sincere and generous director’s statement, filmmaker Michael Tully discusses the varying ambitions that informed Septien—including, but not limited to, “a late-night made-for-television movie from the 1980s,” “a childlike fever dream a la Spirit of the Beehive,” “a wholly genuine and funny art film,” “a horror movie minus the outright scares and overly gratuitous content,” “a Southern gothic short story in the vein of Flannery O’Connor,” and even “an unconventional sports picture.” Near the end of his statement, Tully modestly speculates, “Of course, in trying to be all of these things, Septien might not be any of them.” And that is, precisely, the problem with Tully’s film: Like many films early in a director’s career, it plays more as a sketchbook of intended future endeavors than as a cohesive and fully realized vision in its own right.
Septien is most obviously intended as a Southern gothic a la O’Connor. The film follows the eccentric Rawlings brothers—Cornelius (Tully), Ezra (Robert Longstreet), and Amos (Onur Tukel)—as they wrestle with a demon from their past that will, in the gothic tradition, remain unnamed until the last few minutes. The slim, bearded Cornelius has recently reappeared after a nearly 20-year absence to live with his brothers on the dilapidated family farm (for reasons that appear to be entirely arbitrary), learning that the queenie Ezra has installed himself as the family’s caretaker, while Amos creates disturbingly graphic art in the barn. Sullen and disenchanted, Cornelius refutes any questions the understandably curious brothers ask of his disappearance, preferring instead to indulge day trips into town to huff glue and hustle various athletes who mistakenly presume this drifter to be an untalented burnout.
The scenes pertaining to the sports-hustling scenario are the most amusing, as they actively fly in the face of the conventions of stories that offer us tortured losers crippled by their past. The rest of the film isn’t so original, as it prefers, instead, to linger on prolonged moments of foreshadowing that offer little apart from the studied weirdness with which many low-budget wannabe oddities traffic. The Rawlings brothers voice contrived banalities, walk through ominously bright fields (the film admittedly has a nicely eerie visual texture), and wait for a preacher who will absolve them of the pain that’s recently been reawakened by the appearance of a plumber (Mark Darby Robinson) who looks a lot like an especially old and debauched Charles Bukowski.
A reliable scenario, sure, but it’s one that requires some ugliness and disregard for taste. Tully is earnest and sincere, qualities that should not be taken for granted, but his self-consciousness cripples Septien. The film needs chaos, and some sort of catharsis, to shake it from its mannered and overly controlled dullness. Tully cites O’Connor in his notes, but did he ever read her? O’Connor’s stories were angry, ironically beautiful, capable of capturing real human sickness, while Septien could be equated to a well-meaning college band covering a song whose primal rebel yell is entirely beyond its reach. One should never be able, or tempted, to ascribe the phrase “well meaning” to any kind of gothic or horror film. It means the film in question never really rattled us, but, sensing the ambition, we didn’t want to be too mean to it.