Studio: Starz Digital Media
Director: Jesse Thomas Cook
Writer: Tony Burgess
Producer: Jesse Thomas Cook, John Geddes, Matt Wiele, Chad Archibald, Cody Calahan
Stars: Jason David Brown, Molly Dunsworth, Julian Richings, Robert Maillet, Nicole G. Leier, Tim Burd, Stephen McHattie
Trapped in a subterranean septic tank, a mutated man’s only hope of escaping may be the demented brother of a murderous maniac.
An official synopsis for “Septic Man” describes the film as the “award-winning origin story of Jack, a sewage worker who’s determined to uncover the cause of the town’s water contamination crisis. But when he becomes trapped underground in a septic tank without food or water, he undergoes a hideous and repulsive transformation. In order to escape the tank, he must team up with a docile Giant and confront a murdering madman” known as Lord Auch.
For some, that summary sounds fun enough to warrant a watch without any further information required. For me, those sentences inspired enough hesitation that “Septic Man” went on my “maybe I should skip it” list. The impression given was one of deliberately cheesy B-movie charm and plentiful tongue-in-cheek scat humor. There was a time when the seemingly similarly styled films of Lloyd Kaufman and Troma were eagerly snatched from video store shelves by my hot little hands. Except personal tastes had long since veered into directions where toilet jokes and people covered in poop now hold little to no sway.
I don’t think of myself as a snob when it comes to gross-out gags. I just find that watching people vomit or defecate for comedic or intentional revulsion purposes carries extremely narrow entertainment appeal. Not because of any perception of bad taste, but because it is simply uninteresting. Diarrhea does not make me laugh any more than prop puke makes me turn away from the screen.
What convinced me to give “Septic Man” the benefit of the doubt was the revelation that it was written by Tony Burgess, the same man who wrote the novel and the screenplay for “Pontypool,” one of the most inventive contemporary takes on an apocalypse scenario anyone is likely to witness in independent horror. The pedigree of “Pontypool” alone made another Tony Burgess-penned film intriguing. Coupled with “Septic Man” having been a 2013 selection at Austin’s renowned Fantastic Fest, where its lead Jason David Brown went home with a Best Actor Award, this fostered enough reason to believe that the movie could perhaps fill my cup of Earl Grey after all.
Not a comedy no matter how its plot might read, “Septic Man” is a less humorous, more tragic take on the tale of a toxic avenger transformed by contaminated waste and forced to fight two twisted brothers who leave him trapped in an underground sewage tank. Originally, I facetiously speculated that Jason David Brown is both the film’s production designer and lead actor because the sets are so convincing with their filth and foulness that no one else was willing to get down and dirty in the titular role. Despite having notable names and professional polish, the production actually appears to be the labored fruits of a tight-knit group, seeing as this may be the first reasonably budgeted film I’ve seen where the camera operator and key grip/gaffer pull additional duty as producers.
Indeed, “Septic Man” attracted a capable cast and enough technical talent to give the film a terrific visual look in its sets, lighting, practical FX, and cinematography. This implies that the way the project was initially envisioned and described to cast and crew to bring them on board must have promised a more stylized personality than what ultimately manifests. Because the truth of the matter is that the script is so flat and the direction so bland that “Septic Man” has a hard time avoiding a slow death by drowning in doldrums.
Jack ventures into the subterranean waste chamber around the 18-minute mark and save for brief dream sequences and two quick encounters with Giant, he stays there in solitude for the remainder of the runtime. Nearly all of the characters are portrayed as loners to some degree. Jack’s pregnant wife is left alone to wonder what happened to her husband. Giant and Lord Auch are brothers, but Lord Auch is basically mute and Giant is dimwitted, effectively entrenching them on their own islands, too. This theme of isolation runs so deep that the characters are constrained by their circumstances to have limited potential for development. This leaves everyone to run, or in this case stand, in place.
Left by his lonesome for most of the film, Jack is forced to talk to himself in order to deliver exposition to the audience, although much of his dialogue consists of cussing out his situation, his captors, and whatever broken valve or pipe gets in his way. Punctuating the quiet time spent with Jack swimming in liquid fecal waste are regularly arriving shots of people puking. Jack barfs. Giant barfs. Jack’s wife Shelley barfs. A random woman in the opening scene barfs. The excessiveness isn’t necessarily played for laughs, and it happens so often that any revolting factor completely evaporates well before the ninth or tenth instance of retching. You’re left to wonder, what is anybody getting out of 85 minutes worth of this?
I appreciate that “Septic Man” tries playing itself as straight horror. Yet in dispensing with any bend towards absurdity or perceptible slyness, the tone plateaus at a blasé level of plain vanilla. The film is moderately odd, but not odd enough to qualify as quirky or as stylish outside of its imagery. Once the “eww, gross” novelty wears off, which happens quickly, what remains is a test of patience for something other than throwing up to happen as Jack sits contemplatively and gradually mutates over the course of an hour.
The idea of making a movie giving filmmakers free reign over an irreverent playground of pudding-caked septic tanks and vomit-covered decaying corpses probably sounded like a rip-roaring good time during development. Unfortunately, the concept in practice turns out to not be very strong. The makeup is stellar and the production design definitely is as well. But the story is too confined, the cast is too small, and the pace is too dull for “Septic Man” to properly cock its punch. With only overused gross-outs to fill in the blanks, the film doesn’t offer enough personality to fulfill the promise of its off-the-wall premise.
NOTE: An additional sequence accompanies the end credits.
Review Score: 40