The Synthetic Man

| June 9, 2013

The independent horror film scene, perhaps more than independent film in general, often presents the dedicated fan with a peculiar problem. Legions of low-budget horror films are made every year, many of them barely-competent takes on the standard zombie or slasher film, and it’s tough to figure out who’s making movies in the hopes of winning the lottery and getting a deal to make bigger-budget (but still barely competent) films and who’s genuinely making movies out from their own obsession and/or love of cinema. It’s exceptionally rare to find a filmmaker who is obviously making something truly unique. One such filmmaker and film is John R. Hand and his latest film, The Synthetic Man.

After a creepy (dreamed?) morning visit from a gloved figure with a knife, a seemingly disturbed young woman (April Hand) begins to write a novel in a spiral notebook. She wanders to the library and her attention is grabbed by the title of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Synthetic Men of Mars, from which she borrows the title of her work in progress: The Synthetic Man. In the story, a man named Richard (Jeff Hartley) learns of an ancient alien race that has been watching humanity throughout history. One of these aliens is The Synthetic Man, a humanoid creature who periodically rapes and impregnates human females. As Iris continues work on the book, she becomes increasingly unhinged and Richard’s methods of dealing with the alien threat become more violent.

Shot on a combination of bleary VHS and high-definition digital video, The Synthetic Man is mostly made up of footage of Iris wandering around with her eyes wide and staring, talking to herself (sometimes out loud) as she works out what happens next in her novel. The book is informed by cheap science fiction and horror movies, as shown by Iris visiting her local video store’s racks and racks of faceless genre films. She incorporates pulp sci-fi concepts and familiar genre tropes into her story, and the high-definition footage of the book offers many of the film’s most interesting moments, such as Richard being attacked in the forest by an alien woman, and the explicit finale in which we see exactly what The Synthetic Man does to his victims.

Writer/director Hand’s previous two films have been strange in their own right, but The Synthetic Man is easily his most bizarre film yet. The Synthetic Man presents an oppressively claustrophobic portrait of Iris and her creative process, rightly suggesting that creation of anything– even the most derivative “art”– can be a painful, arduous experience for the creator. Most viewers may feel watching The Synthetic Man is much the same, but that is exactly the point. There is no doubt that Hand has created this film (like his previous films) exactly as he wanted. As difficult as most viewers will no doubt find it, The Synthetic Man is clearly the work of a passionate, idiosyncratic artist. Love it or hate it, this is the kind of film that makes scouring the independent genre landscape worthwhile.

For more information on The Synthetic Man and John R. Hand’s other films, visit the JRH Films web site.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:

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