[18 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Splatter is often the sad step-child of horror. When done correctly, or within context, it’s beloved if bloody. Very bloody. It can even be used to bring a bit of humor into your otherwise aggressive arterial spray (isn’t that right, Sam Raimi and Lloyd Kaufman?). Septic Man falls into the former category, taking a surprisingly serious tone over something that should be salacious and scatological.
Indeed, the movie revolves around a sanitation worker who gets trapped in a toxic underground sewer and suddenly transforms into a hideous combination of feces and filth. There’s also a subtext of possible pandemic, maybe-imaginary creatures, good vs. evil, hero vs. villain, and perhaps the most idealized view of virulence ever put on film.
Our hero is Jack (Jason David Brown), an old school septic worker who knows the ins and outhouses of his small Canadian town Collingwood like the back of his gunk-covered hands. When the city is suddenly overrun by a toxic water supply (threatening the populace with all manner of horrific dysentery and diseases), a government bureaucrat (Julian Richings) hires our lead to locate the source of the problem. With a pregnant wife (Molly Dunsworth) at home and a hefty payday in the wait, Jack agrees.
Within moments of discovering what has happened, he becomes trapped in an arcane old section of the sewers by a madman named Lord Auch (Tim Burd) who uses his brother, “Giant” (Robert Maillet) to carry out his hideous, murderous designs. As Jack slowly sinks into madness, the various noxious elements within the water begin to change him, as well.
Imagine Eraserhead crafted from the runoff of your local cesspool and you’ve got the basic idea for Septic Man. Director Jesse T. Cook and writer Tony Burgess may think they are making a sobering allegorical statement about isolation and loss painted in piles of… well, piles. But the truth is that the film is a fascinating freak show which both repulses and engages.
It’s very much along the lines of the late ‘80s classic Street Trash, taking practical effects and make-up mutation to disgusting, disturbing extremes. There’s also hints of Troma here and there, especially in Cook’s desire to showcase feces, vomit, blood, bile, and any other bodily fluids in graphic, gross-out detail. There’s also a superhero story dynamic at work, as well.
The Lynch reference is obvious because of the figurative desire to showcase one man’s descent into madness, said insanity materializing in unusual and arcane ways. In Eraserhead, it was a monstrous infant. In Septic Man, its personal desperation festooned with diarrhea. Henry Spencer is trapped in a parenthood he never wanted or expected, it’s ripe slice of Hell reminding him of its existence with every gurgling, horrific cry. Jack is literally held prisoner in a puke-filled foulness which both defines and defies him. His transformation into “what he is” (metaphorical to literal) creates a kind of tension that restates the sentiment at the film’s core.
David Fincher also floats around the edges here, especially in those moments where we see Lord Auch and Giant interacting in their “lair”. One particularly disturbing sequence sees the homunculus sharpening his master’s teeth, a giant file grinding the enamel down to fine, ferocious points. It’s also like Unbreakable in that Cook and Burgess are trying to create comic book chaos in a semi-realistic setting. Jack is being set up as our future Swamp Thing like hero, Lord Auch and his ilk being positioned as a possible nemesis. Jack’s wife it the psychological backstory, while Collingwood’s Mayor (some fine extended cameo work by Pontypool‘s Stephen McHattie) offers up another possible villain.
While evoking elements of The Toxic Avenger, however, Septic Man is more concrete than that Troma treat. It’s not only about the excess. Kaufman was going for the gag (both figuratively and in actuality). Once Cook gets past the grotesqueries, he’s digging much deeper beneath the material’s surface. In fact, you can say that Septic Man is a new school attempt at using old fashioned shock value as social commentary.
At first, we can see that Jack’s sacrifice is actually helping the situation. Once he become the protagonist to Lord Auch’s plotting, his proficiency increases. It’s not long before things are back to normal in Collingwood, but not because of science. No, Septic Man takes the concept of responsibility to repulsive extremes.
Of course, anyone whose seen the French fright flick Inside will argue that this isn’t some anarchic gore fest. Instead, Cook and Burgess paint with putrescence because it best serves their story. It also underscores their message. It may not be pleasant to look at, but within the context of the origin being offered (apparently, we will see more of this monster in the future),it’s apropos. Imagine what Jack Napier might have looked like while he was chemically being transformed into the Joker and you’ve got at least a small indication of what Septic Man is going for.
If Cook and Burgess are indeed setting us up for a continuing series of mutant monster superhero takedowns, this movie is a decent start. In fact, the finalé feels rushed, as if the duo had more they wanted to deal with and ended up cutting back in order to save it for the sequel. There will be those who can’t get by the opening bodily fluid brazenness and our filmmakers provide little clarification.
Still, Septic Man is a good film. Hopefully, the next time around, the reliance on splatter will lead to something more great than gratuitous.