Film Review: ‘Septic Man’

Geoff Berkshire
15 August 2014

Anyone clamoring for a scatological horror movie will get what’s coming to them with “Septic Man.” The Canadian oddity about a sewer worker who oh-so-slowly transforms into a monstrous mutant proudly distinguishes itself as the crappiest chiller in recent memory, quite literally. Overflowing with bodily fluids (and solids) but lacking the sort of gonzo calling cards that would make it required viewing for extreme-cinema aficionados, director Jesse Thomas Cook’s humorless third low-budget feature is a monotonous mess. It’s set to make the rounds from VOD bow to limited theatrical release to DVD debut in just eight days, but it would be more apt to flush this steaming pile straight away into the annals of trivial genre junk.

Cook immediately announces his intentions with a stomach-churning pre-credits sequence of an anonymous young woman puking and pooping her guts out on a dingy bathroom set that grimly recalls the worst of the “Saw” franchise. Depressingly enough, it’s all downhill from there. Voiceover narration during the opening credits explains that there’s something contaminating the water supply in the city of Collingwood, Ontario. Sixteen people are already dead, and E. coli and cholera are widespread. As the panicked mayor observes, “We are in a heck of a goddamn situation here,” so he calls for a citywide evacuation.

Unassuming sewage worker Jack (Jason David Brown, too vanilla for a star turn) is too busy fixing backed up pipes to get the message. Instead he’s approached by a mysterious stranger, Prosser (Julian Richings, creepy and classy in a throwaway role), and offered $200,000 if he’ll stay behind to work when everyone else leaves. When Jack tells his pregnant wife, Shelley (annoyingly played by Molly Dunsworth), she rants about doing what’s best for the baby and takes off. Left alone, Jack descends into the sewers.

From here, the film becomes a laborious slog of long stretches where absolutely nothing happens except Jack roaming around in sewer water, punctuated by repulsive but utterly banal gross-out moments. Jack uncovers some dead bodies, feasts on the flesh and drinks the blood of sewer rats, pulls back his own skin covering an open wound, hallucinates, and vomits … a lot. Just to keep things relatively interesting, he also interacts with a pair of freakshow-ready brothers who live above him in the sewer: a kind but not too bright giant (wrestler Robert Maillet, the only performer to inspire any empathy), and a mute psycho killer (Tim Burd) who chomps on his victims with razor-sharp teeth.

The narrative simply runs in circles without ever finding genuine scares — certainly not from Jack’s haphazard transformation into a creature that looks like a 21st-century “Toxic Avenger,” minus the Troma film’s campy comedy and satire. All the while, the largely uninspired tech contributions fail to develop any sort of unsettling atmosphere underground. Jack’s predicament is both revolting and claustrophobic, but he never emerges as any kind of hero or villain, just a passive victim, which makes the pic’s most off-putting quality its endless tedium.

Screenwriter Tony Burgess delivered a far superior work of subversive small-town Canadian horror with 2008’s zombie-virus drama “Pontypool.” It’s hard to believe he went on to write this, though the blame may lie squarely with the director. Cook appears to be equally inspired by the queasy body horror of David Cronenberg and the nightmarish surrealism of David Lynch, in much the same way the worst hopefuls on “American Idol” are so often inspired by Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

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