Written by: Tony Burgess
Directed by: Jesse Thomas Cook
Starring: Jason David Brown, Molly Dunsworth, and Robert Maillet
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Shit just got surreal.
Septic Man ends where you might expect it to begin, with a horribly malformed man emerging back into the world, presumably to wreak havoc, a moment that serves as an exclamation point on a film that frequently dances around expectations. I must admit, I dismissively assumed it would be a big, goofy romp, sort of like a literally shitty riff on The Toxic Avenger, at least until I realized Tony Burgess (Pontypool) wrote its screenplay. Call it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but Burgess’s involvement turns Septic Man into a much more intriguing, thoughtful proposition whose real preoccupations lie—appropriately enough—below its surface, where the film is less about a man’s physical agony and more about his mental and spiritual anguish.
When the small Canadian town of Collingswood is struck by a mysterious disease, the town council turns to Jack (Jason David Brown), the self-proclaimed Septic Man to investigate and eliminate the source of infection. Despite the pleas of his pregnant wife (Molly Dunsworth), Jack throws himself into his ignominious task with heroic aplomb and plucks various critters and gunk from the sewage pipes. Even the rotting corpses he encounters hardly deter him, as he manages to easily decontaminate the water supply. Actually emerging from the sewers proves to be more difficult, though, when he suddenly finds himself held captive by the maniacal Lord Auch (Tim Burd) and his simpleton brother (Robert Maillet).
Auch’s name isn’t a random coincidence and in fact serves as a key to unlocking the method behind the madness of Septic Man. A reference to George Bataille’s pseudonym, the name—which translates to “Lord of the Shithouse”—connects the film’s vomitus (as in it literally opens with a girl puking her guts out) verve with the renowned French writer’s musings on transgression. Like Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Septic Man thrives on pushing the envelope via transgressive imagery, particularly bodily fluids; where Bataille was primarily preoccupied in sexual motifs and fluids, the film drowns audiences in rivers of feces, puke, and blood. To call it unpleasant would be like calling Bataille’s novel—which features a scene where a girl stuffs severed eyeballs into her vagina—merely scandalous in its day.
But is the connection between Septic Man and Bataille anything more than a wink or a desperate attempt to graft some kind of deeper meaning to its disgusting proceedings? I think so, but, even more importantly, director Jesse Thomas Cook really believes so and remains committed to treating the material completely seriously, perhaps excessively so. Septic Man is an unrelentingly bleak, disturbing descent into madness. That it literally unfolds in a dank, filth and labyrinthine sewer that’s been lit to resemble the red-tinted bowels of hell only reveals the half of it, as it unfolds in a larger world where Jack’s pregnant wife represents the only bastion of sanity. Jack’s liaison with the town council is a gaunt, shady figure, while the town mayor (Stephen McHattie) appears in oddball public-service-announcements. Obviously, Jacks’ captors are the most psychotic denizens, with Auch himself serving as the frenzied counterpart to his more oddball brother, who often doesn’t seem to be aware of his own actions—you could almost find some pathos and some good-heartedness in the Giant if he weren’t an accessory to kidnapping.
And then there’s Jack, who seems to be well-adjusted enough, at least until you consider that he fancies himself to be a superhero that cleans up shit. His decision to go into the sewers when everyone else flees town seems noble, but he seems driven by a pathological sense of inadequacy. With his wife pregnant, he feels psychotically obligated to provide for her, even if it entails wading through the entire town’s bowel movements. The longer he spends down below, the more obvious his paranoia and psychosis become: haunted by visions of his wife and tormented by his helplessness, he begins to fall apart both psychologically and physically, his husk of skin giving way to boils and rotting infections (the effects work achieving this is nothing less than astounding). By the end of the film, he’s almost completely transformed into a piece of shit, an image that reflects how he must feel about himself and his inability to provide for his wife.
As it focuses more intently on Jack’s deterioration, Septic Man comes to resemble Cronenberg’s take on The Fly more so than anything hailing from Tromaville. While not as operatic and overbearingly tragic as that film (mostly because the performances don’t reach those heights), it’s similarly concerned with the psychological fallout of a hideous transformation. Making a monster movie where a creature goes on a carnage spree is predictable and easy; making one where the creature has to wallow in both his rage and fecal matter is a different beast altogether. It takes a lot of guts to aggressively subvert and refute expectations with a title like Septic Man, especially when the film builds up to the bloody rampage, yet still denies it. This is not exactly a pleasant film, but it is a thoughtful, daring one with plenty of subtext and intrigue boiling underneath its vile, almost repulsive exterior. The historical Lord Auch would be proud. Buy it!
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