“SEPTIC MAN” (Fantastic Fest Movie Review)
Can something with as outlandish a plot as SEPTIC MAN—one seemingly conceived in Tromaville—make an attempt at being meditative? I’d argue yes, of course. It’s an artist’s prerogative how they’d like to present their story, and if writer Tony Burgess and director Jesse Thomas Cook saw something mellow, or melancholy, in a man covered in shit, it’s up to the audience to tune in to their fecal frequency. Does a subsequent distaste then seem worse, however, if their unexpected take misses the mark? It may be more ambitious, but is it somehow more trying than if they simply filmed a wannabe cult retread? Absolutely.
SEPTIC MAN is dour. Of course it opens with the sort of gross-out set piece many will expect upon hearing the film’s premise, but the ensuing story is set in some perpetually overcast, working class, seemingly depressed town. That opening gives us insight into the illness plaguing Collinwood, a violent epidemic of stomach virus caused by contaminated water. We’re subject to a young woman battling the bug and it comes from all sides, pouring from all orifices.
From there, our title character is introduced mid-job. It’s a dirty one, messing around with sewage, but nowhere near the level of what he’s about to expose himself to. Approached by a mysterious, all-knowing government suit, Jack is asked to stay behind as his neighbors and fellow townsfolk are evacuated. “They” want Jack to save his fellow man and bring them back home. Following a bright idea, he heads straight for the sewage plant, where he finds two strange denizens who live among the halls and is subsequently locked in the structure’s most shit, piss, vomit and bile-filled room.
It’s here SEPTIC MAN becomes stagnant. Trapped in an echoing hall of waste with no way out, Jack just sits in it, pondering his life and endlessly reminding the audience his wife Shelley (HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN’S Molly Dunsworth, underused) is pregnant. He’s taunted from above by the aforementioned denizens, a pair of bumbling killers by the name of Giant (Robert Maillet) and Lord Auch (Tim Burd). They mostly bicker, while Jack mostly stews, all while mutating into something horribly deformed, a la Toxic Avenger.
But Burgess and Cook’s decision to not let their monster roam free leaves SEPTIC MAN spinning wheels. The movie rarely goes anywhere. If there’s an underlying social commentary about the crap the working class must take, it’s not clear, and Stephen McHattie’s televised cameos as a seedy mayor feels superfluous—more a fun acting choice than larger point. When Septic Man begins to accept his fate as something transformed, shouting cult-ready proclamations, it all feels unearned. The makeup and surrounding FX are fantastic, but when the credits make clear at least part of that was achieved through the help of Astron-6 member Steven Kostanski (MANBORG), you’ll wonder what kind of energy he could have brought at the helm.