Any horror fan knows it: We love to watch. Perhaps through giddy fingers; maybe with a stomach-kick queasiness. But horror film is, at heart, deliberately looking at the worst possible things, and not looking away. Director JT Petty knows it; his first film, Soft for Digging, was a low-budget, high-ambition horror film made for less than $6,000; his next directorial gig was Mimic: Sentinel. "I make my living making scary movies," he explains early on in S&MAN, "but this is going to be about scary movies." Opening with a nod to a few classics -- Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer -- Petty introduces us to three different filmmakers working in what he calls 'underground horror" -- a shot-on-video world of cheap thrills and cheaper production budgets, sold on-line, at conventions or by mail. As Petty explains, "It's not snuff" -- the unholy grail of long-rumored real-life death caught on film for purposes of entertainment -- "but it's close."
In the uneven (but not uninteresting) S&MAN, Petty introduces us to three separate film makers: Fred Vogel, who creates gonzo horror films under the August Underground banner; Erik Rost, who creates stalker/snuff-themed films in the S&MAN series; and Bill Zebub, the creative force behind slasher flicks like Kill the Scream Queen and The Crucifier. Vogel looks like a well-groomed sports buff; Rost is a self-deprecating, self-promoting craftsman; Zebub looks like he was peeled off the bottom of a cab in his native New Jersey after a particularly rockin' Sammy Hagar show. And they make films about killing people. Zebub says it best, and bluntly: "I don't shoot movies to make art; I shoot movies so perverts will give me money." Petty takes the long way around to get to these filmmakers; originally, Petty wanted to shoot a documentary about a man in his old neighborhood who was found to have recorded 191 videotapes of his neighbors without their knowledge. Any charges were dropped as the neighbors realized that legal process would involve public screening of the tapes in a court of law. That man refused to take part, however, and the failure of that pitch made Petty scramble -- and as S&MAN kicks off with long-winded chats with an academic, a forensic psychiatrist and a psychologist, you can feel Petty trying to get his feet. But he eventually does, finding a certain mix of the horrible and the banal in underground horror -- some moments in Vogel, Rost and Zebub's films play like collaborations between the Marquis De Sade and Ed Wood.
But some do not, and Petty himself is curious about what that says about a medium, and a genre. Or, as he himself puts it at the film's start: "I admired the peeping tom; he had made movies that were frightening and titillating and real." And there's an audience for this stuff, which these filmmakers far to satisfy, even making couture fetish horror films: If you want to see a film about clones in their underwear shooting each other topless, you can get it made. But Petty's film intercuts these three creators with academic drone: The on-screen 'expert,' Professor Carol J. Clover, admits she doesn't know a lot about underground horror at least twice, and married psychologist/psychiatrist couple Dr. Richard Kruger and Dr. Meg Kaplan read out loud from the DSM-IV. And there's something a little off about all the filmmakers as well -- Vogel suggests his in-house production crew could make a better decapitation video than Daniel Pearl's kidnappers, Rost reveals that he doesn't ask his actresses for permission before he 'auditions' them by taping them in the streets, and Zebub drinks Coors after Coors as he forces an actress to lay semi-naked facedown on the floor of a bar for a few hours to get a shot just right.
Made for Mark Cuban's HDNet Films, S&MAN doesn't really reach out to a broad audience; Horror freaks with an interest in deconstruction studies aren't exactly a huge demographic. Perry seems to be suggesting that in horror -- as in film -- the means of production have fallen into the hands of the workers, and some of the workers are working on some very disturbing things. In fact, Petty pulls a trick with his focal three horror-makers throughout S&MAN that both shores the film up and undermines. S&MAN may have too many themes flitting through it, but curious horror buffs will find it to be a knowing look at the lowest-yet-purest possible levels of a genre. S&MAN tries to challenge why horror fans watch, even as it strains to give them more to stare at.
(For more on S&MAN, check out Scott Weinberg's interview with JT Petty. ...)