This was originally intended to appear in my new column on Psychotronic Cinema, but has now become a standalone piece…
Emblematic of all things psychotronic is Jesse Thomas Cooke’s Septic Man (2013). Quick to assert its rejection of good taste’s normative boundaries, it opens with a woman literally vomiting and shitting herself to death. For in smalltown Collingwood, Ontario, there is something in the water – a toxic cocktail of exotic diseases that are killing off the locals. Accordingly, ‘septic man’ Jack (Jason David Brown) is hired by a shadowy figure (Julian Richings) to find, and fix, the source of the outbreak. Yet as Jack plumbs the depths of his evacuated hometown, he gets trapped in an outflow tank at the sewage plant, and finds himself transforming into a monstrous incarnation of the town’s buried unconscious.
The Toxic Avenger and C.H.U.D. (both 1984) are the obvious reference points for Jack’s subterranean metamorphosis, but there is something altogether more elusive going on in Cooke’s film. Perhaps it is the screenplay by Pontypool‘s Tony Burgess, which keeps confounding Jack’s actual experiences with hallucination and metaphor. By the end we are not sure whether a strange pair of fraternal serial killers (Robert Maillet, Tim Burd) exists in the bowels of the sewer or only of Jack’s mind, or indeed whether Jack has truly unclogged the system or just furnished it with more blockage of his own.
Jack’s slow death down below is decorated not just with all the expected shit, waste and rot, but, paradoxically, with the imagery of birth (birth being this young father-to-be’s principal anxiety). As he takes on the town’s sickness, he also becomes a new, ambiguous hero of the underground – and there is even, accompanying the film’s closing credits, a country theme song commemorating Septic Man’s idiosyncratic exploits. The results, deeply unnerving, impenetrable and wrong in all the best ways, might well linger in your brain like a bad smell.