A slow-burn approach to horror can be a wonderful thing, but Septic Man takes the technique to an extreme more brutal than its many shock effects. Because the events of its plot would take up as little as 15 minutes in a more conventional and less tedious genre exercise, the movie eventually plays like a horror-movie antagonist’s origin story stretched to feature length.
First, though, it plays like a social commentary in search of a society. The film zeroes in on the Canadian town of Collingwood, which evacuates in the midst of a water contamination emergency. The mayor hires the mysterious Prosser (Julian Richings) to in turn hire septic worker Jack (Jason David Brown) to stay behind and fix the problem. Jack’s pregnant wife Shelley (Molly Dunsworth) objects, but he can’t resist the lure of money and a cushy desk job.
There’s a germ of a clever idea in making a horror-movie lead out of a guy who works in waste disposal, but screenwriter Tony Burgess carefully evades any potential relevance in favor of, well, nonsense. Prosser refers to Jack’s usefulness as part of the “old infrastructure,” even though Jack is relatively young and appears to work for a private septic-repair company. (What would be the “new infrastructure” of water and septic pipes?) Much of the dialogue is equally nonsenscial. (Jack: “What’s the consortium?” Prosser: “Results, Jack”) The rest is just screaming, because it’s the movie’s second-favorite method of expression, right after vomiting and slightly ahead of corpse-dumping.
Jack screams and vomits, because once he gets trapped in the sewers and exposed to the untreated water, he begins a transformation that the filmmakers don’t even bother to contextualize. The movie opens on a gory scene in a repulsive, shit-covered bathroom that looks like a Friedberg-Seltzer parody of a Saw set, establishing ravaging effects of the contamination that might have served as chilling foreshadowing, had the movie seen fit to revisit them in any way whatsoever. But Jack goes through a completely different ordeal, and the employment of that stand-alone gross-out scene (the first of several) contributes to a complete lack of tension, compounded by the fact that Collingwood looks exactly the same before, during, and after the evacuation.
Static, murky treatment of supposedly big changes becomes a motif of the film (only some time-killing dream sequences make any striking use of color), with the incessant pulse of an electronic score insisting that something is happening at all times. The transition from Jack into Septic Man, apart from taking approximately forever, also turns the character from weirdly passive to insanely passive. In his new Septic Man form, Jack spends a lot of time waiting around for horrible, violent stuff to happen in his vicinity. Lucky for him, it does: one crazy violent guy called Lord Auch (Tim Burd) runs around the sewers while another, somewhat less crazy violent guy called Giant (Robert Maillet) tries to befriend Jack from a distance.
Former wrestler Maillet is the only performer who generates any empathy. Brown won an acting award at the 2013 Fantastic Fest for his performance, but his most distinctive line readings border on ridiculous. Early on, his voice has the breathy aggression of Mark Wahlberg; as he undergoes a transformation, he switches over to a bellow reminiscent of a Will Ferrell character. It’s not Brown’s fault, though, that Jack/Septic Man has no real character. Neither environmental avenger nor mad slasher, he’s just an excuse for gruesome (and not especially convincing) makeup effects, and more amped-up screaming when the movie tries to simulate a climax. As if the ravings of a lunatic weren’t dull enough, Septic Man eventually becomes the ravings of an idiot too.