Earlier tonight, I had the chance to get cozy with Mikita Brottman’s essay “Mondo Horror: Carnivalizing the Taboo” in Prince’s anthology Th...

S&MAN and Violent Voyeurism

Earlier tonight, I had the chance to get cozy with Mikita Brottman’s essay “Mondo Horror: Carnivalizing the Taboo” in Prince’s anthology The Horror Film. In it, Brottman discusses the place of mondo films like the well-known Death Faces, which show scenes of real life horror—grainy footage of assassinations, bloody crime scenes, horrific accidents and other material deemed too disturbing for television—accompanied by documentary style narration. These films are definitely on the fringes of the horror film industry and have always intrigued me as a fan of the genre. It was this interest in the reality of the mondo film that drew me to the horror documentary S&MAN or Sandman that documents filmmaker J.T. Petty’s search for a real snuff film.

J.T. Petty takes us along for the ride as he shoots a documentary for HDNET. When his idea to interview a Peeping Tom from his old neighborhood flops, he takes the question of voyeurism and turns to the underground horror film industry as he searches for a real snuff film. Petty interviews directors of pseudo snuff films trying to find the answer. It’s pretty sketchy and disturbing stuff. There is Bill Zebub (his legal name by the way) who is the mind behind such fare as Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist. Clutching a beer in his right hand and sporting a Lieutenant Dan shag, it’s easy to write him off as an easy going whack job. As viewers/voyeurs we like to think that the people behind these kinds of films are completely unhinged and unlike us. This small comfort is shattered when we realize Zebub is only a warm up.

Petty introduces Fred Vogel of ToeTag productions and gives us a sampling of his ghoulishly violent August Underground series. For making films that depict bloody torture, he is well put together and coherent. He may want to “spread his sickness to the world” but he looks like he should be working in an accounting office as he brags about his girlfriend’s talent of barfing on cue.

Most chilling of all is Eric Rost, the director of the S&MAN series. He’s your usually creep and sets off all the warning bells. Older, living with his mother and slightly overweight, he’s got the face of a cherub and the mind of a violent voyeur. The S&MAN series is different from the video requests Bill Zebub films or the August Underground ultra-snuff movies. Lacking a plot or a script, they show the stalking of young female “actors” who are then captured and murdered. To achieve this chilling reality, Rost uses some questionable filming methods. The girls who appear in his films do not know that he is watching them. He calls these initial bits of footage “screen tests” and doesn’t see a difference between these episodes and being interviewed by Petty, though Petty points out Rost is aware of being filmed and has signed a release.

Even creepier, Rost talks about the murders as though they are real events. When cataloguing the different kinds of death in his series he casually says “I strangled a girl once” and he is not forthcoming about details on the girls themselves and where they might be now. The film intensifies as Petty finds himself the focus of Rost, who wants to create a legit film with Petty.

This film raises good questions about the ethics of voyeurism, especially in Rost’s films and how we as viewers/voyeurs are participating in the violence we are seeing. As Petty searches for the real thing and appears to find it, we are forced to question our own enjoyment of Rost’s films. When we watch him slash and strangle his victims it’s easy to pretend it’s fake, but we can’t ignore the thrill that goes through us at the thought that it might be real.

As a teenager I remember finding full color photos of a man who had died at my father’s work on our home computer. Dressed in a dark blue jumpsuit, he was cut in half by a falling steel cable. A ragged edge of meat peeked out from under the torn edge of the jumpsuit’s waistband and I got a brief glimpse of his insides, pale grey and slick with blood before I turned away. I have no idea why my dad had those pictures, if he took them or why, but my fascination and horror with these images is the same thing that draws viewers to the S&MAN series. But Petty does not let us off the hook so easily and we are implicated in the watching and the enjoyment of someone else’s violent death.

If you stick around for the credits you’ll realize there is a twist to this mind fuck of a ride. Honestly, I was too disturbed about this documentary to write about it until I found out about the twist. Regardless, S&MAN leaves you questioning your enjoyment of horror and your role as a viewer.

Check out the film on Netflix instant play.

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