Usually when a film I’m watching heads into the sewers, there are Ninja Turtles involved, and even though Jesse Thomas Cook’s gross-out horror Septic Man centers on a mutant, it goes places that heroic reptiles would never venture. It takes a certain kind of person to sit through this movie without balking at the onslaught of one disgusting sequence after another. Bring a barf bag, and make sure it’s already partly full when the movie starts, to put yourself in the right shoes for this job.
In Septic Man, a water contamination problem is affecting a small town, which is soon evacuated by the mayor, played with blasé worry by Stephen McHattie. The government (or whatever authority organization) handles the problem by sending a covert creepster (Julian Richings) to present a special offer to Jack (Jason David Brown), a sewer maintenance worker with a kid on the way. Jack accepts the chance for a huge payday by agreeing to stay behind by himself to identify the sewer problem and right it. Money is tight, so it’s clear that Jack just wasn’t thinking clearly when he accepted the offer. First of all, this is clearly not just a job for one person, and they don’t even give him a Hazmat suit. He doesn’t even wear gloves!
I’m not trying to spoil anything here, but I think it’s safe to say that Jack’s journey underground ends up getting him covered in shit, piss, vomit, blood and whatever kind of sludge that old trash turns into after sitting in shit and piss for a while. He’s trapped in one particular area, where there are a few surprises in store for him. And these surprises are just as gross and gag-inducing as anything else. Septic Man is far from a perfect movie, but it’s completely one of a kind in that it actually ruined my appetite, something that never happens. And it got ruined a lot.
Jack isn’t alone in the sewers. There’s a sharp-toothed weirdo called Lord Auch (Tim Burd) who has an unconventional living situation set up with a mentally-dulled ogre just called Giant (Robert Maillet). Their dynamic isn’t developed very much, but there’s a trashy Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe to their scenes together, as Lord Auch doesn’t speak much, instead choosing to suck air through his teeth like a terrifying chipmunk. These guys have obviously been living down there a while, and they haven’t done so very peacefully.
Heading into Septic Man, which made its world premiere at last year’s Fantastic Fest, I was expecting to be more similar to Toxic Avenger or Swamp Thing, where a guy would somehow be granted superpowers by all the poop surrounding him. But this isn’t like that at all. The first half of the film is a wonderful kind of oddity, where you can’t quite tell if Cook and screenwriter Tony Burgess are intentionally creating a B-movie or if the goofiness just snuck in when no one was paying attention. Jack talks and yells to himself at times when it isn’t needed, and there are quite a few scenes where Cook lets a moment linger just past where a normal edit would go, humorously undercutting some scenes with a few seconds of normalcy. (At least that’s how it felt to me.) And McHattie’s scenes are completely phoned in, obviously shot in front of a green screen, presumably in the actor’s backyard; and it works here, strangely enough.
But by the time the third act comes along, Septic Man forgets all about its sense of humor and just trudges on as a standard low-budget horror flick. In as much as a guy who mutates into a boil-covered mutant can be considered “standard.” It becomes a cat-and-shit-covered-mouse slice of a revenge tale, and even though the gross-out scenes are still there late in the movie — and they’re still effective — it’s a disappointing transition. Cook can’t quite create tension between these characters at this point, having dragged things out through a plot-lagging middle. It’s a one-note story that offers little by way of unpredictability, but one still hopes the weirdness would have shone through a little more throughout the climax.
Cook also directed the professional wrestling-centered comedy horror Monster Brawl a few years ago, and that movie similarly didn’t take its intriguing concept to left field extremes. It’s almost as if Septic Man‘s logline was the entire script here, and though that doesn’t reflect badly on the film when it’s busy inspiring disgust and groans, other scenes force the brain to consider just how ludicrous ever aspect of this situation really is.
All in all, Septic Man lives and dies by its super nasty special effects, and is a movie meant to be watched with like-minded horror freaks who love making fecal puns throughout a film’s runtime. So if you’ve got an iron stomach and a taste for the absurd, round up a couple of slightly melted chocolate bars and find Septic Man currently on VOD and DVD.