Manson Family, The (2003) d. VanBebber, Jim (USA)
I first heard about The Manson Family, and its uncompromising creator Jim VanBebber, in 2005 when it made its DVD debut courtesy of DarkSky Films. Through the various press articles that surrounded the completion of this legendarily extended gestation process (principal photography began in 1989), as well as a terrific article in FAB Press’ Flesh and Blood Compendium, I slowly formed an image of VanBebber as a mad genius who either couldn’t or wouldn’t allow his passion project to leave the nest. Upon finally catching up with the film proper, I was impressed with the man’s attention to detail and his vision, although a little put off by the somewhat ham-handed modern-day bookending device. The final evaluation: This was a worthy effort, certainly a suitable companion piece for 1976’s celebrated TV-movie Helter Skelter, which was promptly filed away in the DVD library under “M” and thought little more about. Until now.
One of the great things about Severin’s outstanding 10th Anniversary Blu-ray re-issue is that it provides the opportunity to revisit the film with eight more years of cinema viewing in general (and genre cinema in particular) under our collective belts. After enduring the recent onslaught of remake and brainless found footage fever, the appreciation for a true filmmaker’s vision and dedication resonates even stronger. Ironically, The Manson Family remains VanBebber’s most recent feature effort, even though a decade has come and gone since it was given its finishing touches and sent out into limited theatrical release in 2003. The film met with wildly divergent reviews, from glowing to scathing, condemning it to a barely visible existence on home video.
But the fact is, this is not – nor do I feel it was ever intended to be – a mainstream offering. It’s too trippy, too dark, too violent, too rough around the edges, too infused with with VanBebber’s personality and individuality. However, this is exactly why it should be embraced by the adventurous and appreciative cinephile. This is a film with something to say, with its own voice and vision and fierce agenda. It’s a rebellious beast, one that dares viewers to remain unaffected by these heinous crimes from forty years ago. One that refuses to mythologize its murderous band’s leader, but spreads the guilt equally among the individuals who held the blades and committed the acts. (Note the film’s title – each of these people made a choice to do what they did. The reduction of Charles Manson from puppet master to petulant patriarch ably sets VanBebber’s account apart from many other, more exploitative efforts.)
The acting is occasionally less than polished, but for the most part the ensemble members acquit themselves admirably. The kaleidoscopic narrative bounces from 1969 with the drug-taking, free-loving Spahn Ranch days to more recent talking head confessionals by the family members. (Due to financial issues, many of these “documentary” sequences were shot years later, such that the performers have actually aged appropriately on camera. It’s a welcome, rarely achieved verisimilitude, although I’m sure VanBebber would have much rather had it otherwise.)
Leslie Orr and Maureen Allisse make indelible impressions as Patty Krenwinkel and Sadie Atkins respectively, perfectly capturing the childlike adoration of their chosen leader, as well as embracing his espoused hedonistic and delusional philosophies. When they are ultimately urged to violence, their immoral glee is barely restrained. Also noteworthy is Marc Pitman’s Tex Watson, whose character arc mirrors the film’s as he grows from naïve hippie to protective clan member to crazed murderer to repentant prison priest following his conviction.
VanBebber himself also puts in a strong supporting performance as Bobby Beausoleil (imprisoned for the Manson-directed killing of Gary Hinman), although his modern scenes are marred by a large and patently false mustache. Considering the effort expended to maintain the illusion of the Ohio-lensed locations standing in for sunny and mountainous California, it’s an odd misstep. Marcello Games plays Manson suitably wild-eyed and mysterious, but he’s actually given more power by his limited screen time, leaving the other characters’ testimony to tell his tale.
The film naturally climaxes with the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings of August 8 and 9, 1969, and VanBebber presents them as the senseless, needless acts of cruelty that they were. There is a sense of immediacy and danger in these scenes and viewers are not spared the gory details. But even though the project may have been born of an exploitation mindset (producer and cinematographer Mike King originally proposed a Manson film as a quickie follow-up to VanBebber’s 1988 audacious lowbudget auctioneer, Deadbeat at Dawn), there is great respect and care given such that the bloody set-pieces carry an emotional toll. We see the victims’ flesh repeatedly stabbed by blades, listen to their pleas fall on deaf ears, watch life ebb from their eyes. These are tough scenes to take…as they should be.
The director juxtaposes his authentically scratched and muddied documentary-style footage of the family members actions and confessionals with the cleaner aforementioned bookending scenes set in 1996. These observe an Unsolved Mysteries-type true crime TV show host (Carl Day) as he prepares a segment about the titular criminals and America’s continued fascination and glorification thereof. Simultaneously, we observe a group of tattooed and pierced Goth kids getting high, engaging in unconventional sex acts, and preparing various weapons for an undisclosed mission. It’s a fairly predictable and none-too-subtle framing device, showing that not only do the disenfranchised and violent youth of America still exist in the corners of ungoverned society, they’ve embraced a madman as their hero. VanBebber’s intentions are honest, but a bit too on the nose in the end.
Severin has ported over several of DarkSky’s 2005 double-disc DVD’s special features, including David Gregory’s indispensable 76-minute making-of doc, The VanBebber Family. In it, VanBebber comes off as extremely lucid and intelligent, calmly explaining that - in spite of the multitude of financial frustrations that kept the film languishing in the cinematic ether - he simply wasn’t willing to give up on or compromise what he felt was an “important story.” Many of the featured players before and behind the camera appear as well, and while some express mild disappointment over the project’s seemingly endless encounters of the unlucky kind, they all state unerring devotion to their fearless leader and seem pleased with the completed product.
Also included is Alex Chisolm’s intriguing if clunky 2001 documentary In the Belly of the Beast, which follows VanBebber’s presentation of the Manson Family workprint-in-progress at the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival. Chisolm also gives equal face time to Nacho Cerda, on hand to premiere his notorious short film Aftermath, as well as Richard Stanley (showing the director’s cut of Dust Devil), A Gun for Jennifer’s Todd Morris and Deborah Twiss, and a very young (and obnoxious) Karim Hussein struggling to complete his own problematic labor of love, Subconscious Cruelty. There’s also a 14-minute excerpt from Nikolas Schreck’s Charles Manson Superstarwhich provides undeniable evidence of its subject’s enduring and magnetic insanity.
New to Severin’s release are a 10-minute interview with composer/rock star Phil Anselmo (who shows that, despite good intentions, his gifts lie not in the realm of extemporaneous speaking), as well as a few deleted scenes. But what should have been the major coup - that of a long-awaited VanBebber commentary track - turns out to be dull and lifeless. The director observes several times that “this is a hard film to talk about,” and while he does offer a few new tidbits not revealed in the making-of doc, he also abandons his chair a little past the hour mark, saying, “I didn’t really want to do this…I think I’ll just let the film speak for itself.” It’s both surprising and disappointing, to be sure, but considering the wealth of extras already available, it’s forgivable.
Finally (yes, there’s more!), this Blu-ray edition marks the debut of VanBebber’s new short film, Gator Green. Unfortunately, like his other shorts My Sweet Satan and Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin, it’s hard to believe that these slapdash affairs were made by the same artist. Where Deadbeat at Dawn is fiercely energetic and captivating (watching VanBebber perform his own stunts is utterly breathtaking) and Manson Family’s maturity and craft elevates it above other true-crime programmers, the short format only seems to serve as a place for VanBebber to showcase dodgy acting, thin storylines and DIY gore effects. In fact, Gator is easily the least of the three; a half-assed yarn about a sleazy backwater bunch who feed other sleazy characters to their resident toothy reptiles. Yawn. After sitting through endless accounts and evidence that VanBebber is capable of making great films, it’s troubling that this is what we’ve been waiting 10 years for.
Despite these minor complaints, there is no question that this 10th Anniversary release is more than worth picking up. Congrats to Severin for picking up the Manson Family mantle with such gusto and care (including new cover artwork by Shock Festival’s Stephen Romano). Place your order now at Severin Films
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine