If there’s ever been a film that made me feel like I needed a shower afterwards, it’s Jesse Thomas Cook’s Septic Man. Much like the tagline states, “It’s a crappy job,” but someone has to watch it, right? If you can get past all the pooping, vomiting, rotting and festering, a unique story influenced by Lloyd Kaufman’s Toxic Avenger model might break through the cloud of odoriferous unpleasantry, but weaker stomachs will struggle to keep their lunch down. The good thing is, your tolerance will be tested within mere seconds of the films opening, so if gross-out body horror isn’t your schtick, no time is wasted introducing the disgusting lengths Cook plunges in order to deliver the most realistic depiction of sanitation-gone-wrong possible. If you can’t stand the smell, get out of the bathroom – as quickly as possible.
Jason David Brown plays Jack (also known as Septic Man), a plumber who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. After a nasty bacterial outbreak infects his entire town, he’s approached by a mysterious man who offers a large sum of money in return for a full investigation of the plumbing systems that have become infected. Jack takes the job, much to the disappointment of his pregnant wife, but he finds himself trapped in a septic tank after encountering two unsavory characters living in the abandoned plant. It’s here where Jack starts undergoing a gruesome transformation, detaching himself from humanity, as he must find a way to outsmart the goons above him while also finding an exit from his stinky prison.
While some B-Movies take absolutely no risks, Septic Man dives head first into the raw sewage that is Tony Burgess’ (Pontypool) script, undeterred by the buzzing flies drawn to the smell of bile, blood, and waste. While this might be an unsavory note for hordes of viewers content with more squeaky-clean filmmaking, Cook doesn’t shy away from material that will undoubtedly offend some palates. As mentioned above, the first few minutes are a test in their own right, showing a contaminated woman expel material from every orifice on her body. The ordeal is downright revolting, a sight that deems no further description, but a challenging tone is established early and our expectations are set correctly, starting Septic Man on the right – albeit nauseating – foot.
My real draw to this toilet-influenced-torture was lead actor Jason David Brown, who won the Best Actor award at 2013’s Austin Fantastic Fest. Knowing the other films in contention at last year’s festival, I was eager to watch Brown’s transformation into his suggested altered state, and I can say he does manage to carry a largely single-character film rather seamlessly. While trapped in the tank, Brown not only has to deal with the health ramifications of being surrounded by infectious waste, watching his flesh become waterlogged and bubbly, but also the mental decomposing that sets in over time. Starting out as a loving family man, Jack becomes this fabled “Septic Man” as he struggles to seek freedom, becoming more of a monster with every new layer of pussy boils. Brown definitely shines besides being masked by grime and muck, regurgitating whatever sustenance is left in his body, but the actor is able to easily harness his character’s motivated fight for survival despite enduring hardships that might have scared away other actors.
Of course, there will be questions that arise about what enjoyment actually exists in watching disease-riddled victims wallow around in their own filth, especially during longer scenes of Jack’s escape attempts that are constantly paused so he can once again vomit in disgust. I consider myself to have a rather strong stomach, but even I found myself growing tired with the overabundance of fluids, as Cook’s relentless portrayal of sewage action may be a little too realistic for comfort. Septic Man delivers exactly what you’d expect from such a revealing title, and while Cook’s ambition coupled with Brown’s acting make for surprising highs, a foul stench also creates equal lows that challenge our overall enjoyment.
Along with Jack’s obvious problems that include being trapped in a septic tank with contamination and not having an exit, two characters aboveground want him dead, but their inclusion struggles to be a tense tussle. Lord Auch (Tim Burd), a murderous psychopath, sports sharpened teeth he uses to bite into victims, while his brother Giant (Robert Maillet), strikes a hidden relationship with Jack in an effort to save his own life. Despite opening Jack’s tomb sporadically to drop a dead body in, there’s never enough background to really invest in Lord Auch’s villainous nature, and instead of being a worthy adversary, these antagonists become forgettable when compared to Brown’s superior screen command.
Septic Man is a watch for certain tastes – the ones who don’t mind getting down and dirty much like Brown’s sewage worker character. I admire what Cook set out to accomplish, maximizing indie filmmaking for a wild, unique ride, but a little less focus on vulgarity could have helped immensely while really bringing a presence to the Septic Man himself. Brown’s journey shows flashes of gripping genre exploitation, but as an end climax is reached, his persona loses focus and Septic Man becomes more of a gimmick than transformation – an unfortunate summation that doesn’t reflect some of Cook’s more impressive moments as a genre filmmaker.
Jesse Thomas Cook is always right on the cusp of finding B-Movie glory (Monster Brawl/Scarce), but Septic Man ends up being a few outrageous scenes away from a breakout hit. His moment will come, mark my words, just not covered in septic runoff.
Despite glimpses of ambitious genre greatness and a strong turn from Jason David Brown, Septic Man gets caught up in being a gross-out challenge that can't shake such an off-putting stench.