Fantastic Fest Review: SEPTIC MAN Is Serious Shit

This movie about a plumber who transforms into a sewer monster is no laughing matter. 

Earlier this year, I watched, and enjoyed, Thanatomorphose, a Canadian "body horror" film that depicted a girl who contracted some sort of disease that caused her to basically melt over a period of a few weeks. Well, something must be in the air up there, because now we have Septic Man, which depicts a man who similarly goes through a slow-burn metamorphosis into something very disgusting - but unlike the other film, which seemed to be suggesting that sexual activity was the cause of the malady, our hero is turning due to overexposure to, well, shit.

The odd thing is, while the title (and the tagline: "Shit just got surreal") suggests something closer to Troma than serious drama, it's a levity free movie - and that's the problem. At first I was just confused as to why it was taking so long to get goofy, but figured it was luring us in with its concept and backstory. The town is being evacuated because of a serious water contamination issue, but our hero Jack (Jason David Brown) is approached by the mysterious Prosser (Julian Richings, a staple in Canadian genre fare) with an offer to use his amazing skills as a sewage worker to stay behind and take care of it for the princely sum of 200,000 dollars. With a baby on the way and a desire to not smell like shit all the time, he takes him up on the offer and heads down into the sewer, only to fall through a hole, become trapped, and then exposed to the nasty stuff that causes him to turn.

I know some of that even SOUNDS like the throwaway plot in some sort of Rob Schneider comedy, but I assure you it's all taken seriously - I don't think there's a laugh in the entire movie. But the drama doesn't quite work either; sure it's sad that our guy is trapped down there (from the point he goes down there, we're pretty much stuck in the murky sewer/septic tank for the rest of the movie), but we don't get enough of a chance to really bond with him before he begins to change into a monster. Also, with roughly 75% of his dialogue being some variation on "What the FUCK?" or "SOMEBODY HELP!!!", after a while he just comes across as grating, not sympathetic.

Worse, nothing much HAPPENS from that point on; most scenes just have him sitting around moaning or listening to Giant (ex-wrestler Robert Maillet, who played Kaidanovsky in Pacific Rim), a fellow sewer dweller who taunts him from the hole that Jack fell through and eventually becomes a sort of ally. Occasionally we cut to Jack's wife or something, but it's not nearly enough to give the movie a pulse - you can chop out most of the middle and it wouldn't matter. To be fair, there are a handful of solid, even creepy moments - I liked when he unclogged a pipe only for several corpses to come floating out - but it wasn't nearly enough to sustain my full interest; I'd check the time to verify that 20-30 minutes had gone by only to discover it was only half that.

Things pick up with the arrival of Lord Auch, a murderer who ALSO calls the sewer his home (I began to wonder if the movie would have been better off treating the sewer as a sort of metropolis in the vein of Midian from Nightbreed). As he's the only real antagonist, the scenes with him are the only thing giving the movie any sense of urgency - Jack doesn't do much to try to get out of there, and we've all seen enough of these movies to know he's probably not going to find any sort of magic cure, so there wasn't much for me to latch onto. Even at a mere 82 minutes it felt padded (complete with unexplained precognitive dream scenes), and (spoiler) the script doesn't even go through with the full on tragic ending, opting for something that seems to be setting up a sequel (or positioning itself as a stealth prequel to The Toxic Avenger) instead.

On the plus side, Jack's makeup is terrific; he's completely covered in a mostly practical design aided by some minor CGI flourishes, with a few stages of deterioration like any good monster movie of this sort (The Fly being the benchmark). It's unfortunate that the location is dark by design and thus we rarely get a good look at it, but the quality is evident all the same. And the performances are solid all around; it's a shame we don't see more of Stephen McHattie as the town's mayor (he doubles his screentime during the end credits), but he's always welcome, and Molly Dunsworth as Jack's wife makes an impression (and gets the closest thing to a sad moment in the movie). I also enjoyed the music; sometimes it seemed like it was temped to a famous horror score (including Saw and Halloween), but I'd still welcome an album release.

In short, it's not a terrible movie, just one that never justifies its decision to take a shit monster so seriously. If the drama really worked the goofy concept wouldn't be an issue, but it never really hits that mark, and it isn't any fun, either. A curiosity, nothing more.