Sandman is a fascinating documentary that made the festival rounds way back in 2006. It played at both South By Southwest, and the Toronto International Film Festival. Today the film is finally being released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is the perfect time for the film to be released, given that we have seen at least two documentaries this year that blur the lines between fact and fiction.
Catfish is out in theaters right now, and Exit Through the Gift Shop was out earlier this year. Both films were controversial for their “is it real or fake” aspect, and they are still hotly debated by film types.
Director J.T. Petty made a film called Soft For Digging (how creepy is that title?) back in 2001, which has gained a bit of cult acclaim in horror circles. He approached HDNet about an idea for a documentary based on a voyeur who menaced his Washington, DC neighborhood while he was growing up.
Hours and hours of videotapes were confiscated, but the man remained free because the victims opted to drop charges rather than face the humiliation of having the tapes aired in public court. The man still lives in the same house in the same neighborhood to this day. Pretty interesting stuff, huh? Unfortunately, the man refused to participate in Petty’s film, and Petty had to find a new course for his film.
So Sandman explores the uncomfortable similarities between voyeurism and watching horror films, bringing in noted experts such as professor Carol Clover, a PHD who wrote Men, Women, and Chain Saws.
Petty also interviews a trio of “underground” horror film makers. These aren’t names and titles you will find on Netflix,or on your local Walmart shelf. Underground horror is an extreme genre niche that is ultra low budget, often made to order, incorporating some type of fetish, and almost always featuring the kidnapping/torture/rape/murder of a female.
In other words, it makes our current crop of torture porn (Hostel, Saw, etc.) look like Sesame Street by comparison. The minuscule budget actually lends credibility to the feeling that you are really watching these acts take place- a “snuff” film, if you will.
Petty speaks with filmmaker Bill Zebub, who is responsible for a couple of charmers called Jesus Christ: Serial Killer, and Kill the Scream Queen. Zebub is appearing at a horror convention called Chiller when Petty catches up with him. Zebub has long hippie hair, lots of facial hair, and is constantly nursing a beer on camera. He makes no pretense about what he is doing. “I make these movies so perverts give me money.” He’s a creepy guy, but seems rather harmless. He has found a niche way to make money, and that’s precisely what he does.
Next up is Fred Vogel, who runs toe tag productions, noted for some pretty vile and despicable films. The most notorious of their offerings are August Underground and its sequel, August Underground Mordum. Based on the very short clips we are shown, you expect that Fred is going to be holy hell frightening, if not bat-shit insane.
The funny thing is, he is clean cut, articulate and respectful of his craft. He genuinely enjoys making the movies, and uses his girlfriend and 80-year old grandma in his movies. Toe tag productions seems like one happy (but sick and twisted) family.
Vogel and his group make extra money by taking commission movies. If you have a sick fantasy, and you have the money, they will bring your fantasy to life. Many of the “actors” allow themselves to be cut or hit on film (for a certain amount of money.) It’s a shocking world that exists, and for obvious reasons these movies are not readily available to the public, they must be purchased online, or from a booth at a horror convention.
Finally, Petty meets with Eric Rost, the least imposing of the three auteurs, but by far the most unsettling. He is an up and coming “Underground” director who has made a series of movies he calls the “Sandman” series. In each “episode” Rost follows a particular girl (without her knowledge) for days, weeks, and sometimes months. You see her at work, in her car, in her house, and with her boyfriend. It is all shot on handheld and is jerky, grainy and completely authentic looking. Each episode culminates with her kidnap and murder.
Petty is obviously upset and starts delving deeper, confirming that Rost did these without the victim’s consent. Rost doesn’t think it is a big deal, no different from him appearing on camera right now. “But you signed a release,” says Petty.
What becomes blurry is how Rost pulls off the final moments of the episodes. He insists that he eventually tells the girls what is going on, and convinces them to participate in the ending. However, he won’t give the names of any of the girls, and acts rather dodgy when asked where the girls are now.
He also says something to the effect of “you can’t believe how different a body is in real life than in the movies.” Is that an admission of actually hurting someone? Rost is your stereotypical creepy guy. A bit chubby, lives in his mother’s basement, all kinds of technology and camera equipment, no girlfriends, no friends. He also has a complete sense of entitlement. When asked about why he tapes women in their homes, he is defensive, “Only if there is a window open or something-I mean, they practically inviting me to.”
So, did Petty inadvertently stumble onto a real killer, who hides behind the label of fiction? Are the women really actors, or unwilling victims? It is a pretty intense and mind jangling ride, but one you should see for yourself. It is a rare glimpse into a subset of horror films that I have no intention of ever seeking out. It’s unnerving just to know that they are out there. I’ve been pulling the shades down real tight every night since I saw this movie.
The DVD screener I watched had the following special features:
- Two audio commentaries with the director and Eric Rost
- The Complete “S&Man” Episode 11
- Deleted and extended scenes
- Underground film clips
- S&Man film trailers for additional Eric Rost “episodes”
S&Man is released October 12 on DVD and Blu-Ray. Warning: the film is quite graphic, because it features clips from some of the “underground” films.