Jesse Thomas Cook’s SEPTIC MAN, available this week on VOD and iTunes, announces its intention to be repulsive right from the opening scene, in which a young woman vomits profusely in a dimly-lit, refuse-drenched bathroom that makes the one from TRAINSPOTTING look like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” It’s not particularly shocking that a movie called SEPTIC MAN would be pretty revolting, but it’s a bit of a tease – the character depicted appears nowhere else in the film, and I could easily be convinced that it was a scene added after the rest of the film had been shot, just to have a memorable opening moment. At least it gets your attention!
Collinwood, the town at the center of SEPTIC MAN, has a water problem even bigger than Toledo’s. It seems their water supply has been contaminated by “cryptosporidium, e. coli and cholera” and the whole town is being evacuated because of it, much to the chagrin of the mayor (the ever-welcome Stephen McHattie) who appears in interstitial segments throughout the film and mostly seems concerned about himself.
Their apparent savior comes in the form of sewage worker Jack (Jason David Brown), who is approached by company man Phil Prosser (an excellent Julian Richings, who has the face and manner of a great character actor) with the offer of $200,000 to check into the contamination while the rest of the town clears out. Having a pregnant wife at home (“I bet she smells shit every time you two fuck,” deadpans Prosser), Jack accepts, even if his wife (Molly Dunsworth) doesn’t like the idea at all and makes her way out of town.
Jack soon fixes the problem, but finds himself trapped in a septic tank — an impressively revolting one that appears to be a dumping ground for dead bodies. He soon finds that he’s not alone, as a pair of brothers, the pointy-toothed Lord Auch (Tim Burd) and a soft-spoken giant (former WWF wrestler Robert Maillet, also in the director’s MONSTERS BRAWL) are also in the area. Meanwhile, the effects of being around such a toxic area begin to show, with Jack’s appearance slowly becoming more repulsive with some impressive gore and boils and his mind playing tricks on him as he begins to hallucinate other characters as well.
There are moments where SEPTIC MAN is certainly a bizarre treat, and Cook makes great use of the turgid locales, giving the film a gorgeously repellant look doused in a yellow akin to poorly-made split pea soup. Jack is a relatively compelling character, and the absurdist humans that inhabit the septic bowels of the city are like rejects from a particularly putrid Jeunet and Caro film, a comparison especially evident when Jack starts to hallucinate.
The problem is that it takes a while to get to this point, and it’s a bit of a sewer-level slog until then. The presence of McHattie’s clearly satirical mayor figure creates an idea that the film is something of a satire, and there’s certainly a good idea in the depiction of the worn-down everyman being turned into a recluse after being abandoned by those he saves without them even acknowledging his efforts, but it feels stretched out so much with footage of Jack roaming around his revolting locale that it feels strained even at a scant 83 minutes.
It’s a shame that SEPTIC MAN isn’t a short film, as a 45-minute running time would have done wonders for the premise, and probably been much more beneficial for the film’s more inventive moments. The special effects are quite good, and several sequences are impressively stomach-churning, but the screenplay by Tony Burgess (PONTYPOOL) seems absurdly protracted to reach feature length, and doesn’t have the bite or sensibility to justify its length. There are certainly good ideas in SEPTIC MAN, but not enough of them to satisfy those looking for a darkly satirical grotesque fest, and it’s a bit too slow and heady to appease splatter buffs. While certainly not equivalent to its stench-filled location, SEPTIC MAN never quite makes for a fully satisfying movement.
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