Toronto After Dark 2013: My Review of Septic Man
Two years ago at After Dark, I was lucky enough to see the film Monster Brawl, a mash up of a wrestling pay per view and a monster factory that was a fan favourite of the festival and an entertaining watch for wrestling and horror fans alike. This was my introduction to the work of Jesse T. Cook and Foresight Features and I looked forward to see what would come next from the filmmaker and his passionate crew. When the 2013 Toronto After Dark lineup was announced, I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only did they have a film at the fest but also one featuring a script by Tony Burgess of Pontypool fame and a cast including Molly Dunsworth, Julian Richings and Stephen McHattie. Septic Man immediately made my “must watch” list.
Part gross out horror, part character piece examining human survival instinct, Septic Man is the story of Jack, a septic and sewage worker in the town of Collingwood, Ontario (hometown of Foresight Features). The town has fallen on hard times as a water contamination crisis has caused a massive evacuation and Jack has been paid handsomely to stay behind and find the cause of the problem. After seeing his pregnant wife leave in a panic and a lot of time spent trying to figure out a plan of attack at uncovering the root of the contamination, Jack finds himself investigating an old sewage plant to reverse the pressure on the old pipes and release the treated water into the town’s drainage system. But after a job almost done, a wrong move lands the septic man plunging into the depths of the sewers with no way out. There he finds the secret behind the contamination and his struggle begins to fight his way to freedom. This is no easy task as Jack must contend with both his body slowly mutating from exposure to contaminates and a pair of deranged, homicidal brothers who now live in the abandoned sewage plant.
I will be upfront and say that the subject matter and style of the film is not usually my cup of tea. I’m used to gore and supernatural elements in my horror. Extreme mutation and overly illustrative displays of bodily fluids is another thing all together. I was taken back by the first scene of the film that shows the graphic effects of the water contamination on a helpless victim. Her demise by all the waste leaving her body simultaneously would not have been my first choice on how to open this movie. Thankfully, as the story progressed, the gross out moments were spread throughout the film well as it did not feel as overbearing as that first moment for the rest of the duration. Between the vomit, feces and mutation, there was thankfully some interesting character moments.
The performances of the piece are surprising as they are a bit unexpected for a film of this nature. Jason Brown proved his acting chops in Monster Brawl when he took on heavy prosthetics to play 3 very different roles while still handling the art direction of the picture. In this film film he handles the art direction again and still gets the sfx make up applied as he plays Jack’s slow transformation to more septic than man. His starring performance is fascinating to watch as for most of the film, he’s just a man alone dealing with his physical disfigurement and descent into madness. He’s a tragic hero because his greatest triumph comes early and there’s no place to go but down. Brown is backed up with some strong supporting performances, most notably from Julian Richings who plays Phil Prosser, a mysterious government man who has an invested interest in saving the town. While his appearances in the film are few, his presence is felt for most of the story. Molly Dunsworth, best known for her role in Hobo with a Shotgun, does a serviceable job as Shelley, Jack’s pregnant wife who’s not only trying to find out about her husband’s fate but also haunts Jack’s dreams and hallucinations. It’s obvious that Stephen McHattie has fun with his cameo in the movie. Unfortunately, not all the performances are up to par as Robert Maillet and Tim Burd who play the psycho brothers, give the most painful performances of the piece, a fault not completely on them as their parts and plotline are underwritten.
This film suffers from a second act slump. The opening of the film is well paced and the characters are given promising introductions. The climax of the film, while a bit choppy in execution, is the right end for the piece. The middle of the film, which is designed to show Jack’s descent from man to creature in both body and mind is given a weak subplot of his captivity and torture at the hands of the 2 brothers who live in the facility. There’s nothing exciting about these characters and their motivations are not explained. Anything they do in the film appears to be just mechanical moves to further the plot to it’s climax. I feel this film may have been stronger if it was just an examination of Jack’s trip into madness and his hopeless attempts to free himself from a trap of his own making. But instead we’re given two unnecessary villains who serve no real purpose but to take up screen time.
Septic Man is far from perfect but still presents a few interesting characters and an a compelling psychological struggle for its protagonist. It fails in keeping that struggle as the driving force behind the story. While I don’t think I will ever check the film out again, if you’re a fan of gross out horror and in depth character pieces, this film might be for you. The film is scheduled to be released on DVD through Anchor Bay in the coming months.
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