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Some movies are noticeably better (or at least more interesting) when you know the stories behind them. Most of writer/director Jim Van Bebber’s films are better and more interesting after learning about the hard fought trials and tribulations it took to bring them to the big/TV screen. Van Bebber’s first film, Deadbeat at Dawn, is a rather underwhelming indie film about street gangs. If that was the end of it, I probably wouldn’t have remembered anything else, but then I remember the film was financed with a student loan check and it took four years for Van Bebber and his friends to finish the film. Now that is a good story. Van Bebber himself is also a particularly magnetic fellow who is more than willing to tell colourful stories about making the film. Suddenly, that rather underwhelming indie flick about street gangs is the product of good, old-fashioned, bootstrap-pulling, not the results of a listless amateur with too much time and money on his hands. It becomes a ‘real’ movie. But that ain’t nothing, because his next feature-length movie, The Manson Family, took 16 years to fully complete (there was an unfinished version released at film festivals in 1997, I believe) and was an uphill battle every inch of the way.

Manson Family, The
Manson Family (called Charlie’s Family on the opening title) is, like Deadbeat at Dawn, more interesting when it’s impossible production period is taken into account. Shortly after completing his first film, Van Bebber decided to make some kind of ultimate filmed recounting of Charles Manson’s ‘family’s’ murders (including all conflicting personal accounts) and created a weirdo pastiche of the arthouse, the grindhouse, and a made-for-TV reenactment. The film was shot on weekends for years while Van Bebber continued toiling away with music videos, short films, and whatever his day job is/was. The final product is a problematic, but generally intriguing film. The lack of budget and extended production period are obvious in the uneven pacing, unfocused sense of storytelling, miniscule production values, and amateur performances. These elements define the feel of the film and are severe enough to chase away a large contingent of viewers. It’s not a traditional film and the fictionalized parts are treated with the same humourless focus as the factual pieces of the real story. Van Bebber isn’t particularly interested in embellished or dramatic storytelling or well-rounded characters. There’s nothing ‘fun’ about the aesthetic, either, and his DIY approach is usually very ugly. But this ugliness also makes The Manson Family a relatively moody and affecting horror film (the only other films I can think of are similarly unsightly independent releases, like Roger Watkins’ Last House on Dead End Street) and a definitively unique take on the already over-told story of Manson and his followers.

It is difficult to gauge Van Bebber’s actual talent level, because so much of the film’s affective gloom could have been achieved by accident. Did the lack of funds and a misguidied love of gore just happen to combine to create something that worked or is The Manson Family a genuinely special film that makes the most of a less than ideal financial situation? Whatever the answer, it’s difficult to argue that the film doesn’t work on a gritty, visceral level. The experimental editing practices verge on non-sequential, all while still holding together the most basic thrust of the historically-inspired narrative. Though sub-Jodorowsky and often numbing, Van Bebber’s hallucinatory images are aggressively blended with cinéma vérité techniques to make a mostly potent visual stew. Detractors also have to admit that The Manson Family captures quite a bit of genuine period feel. The illusion of the Family’s authentic home videos isn’t exactly viable, but, a couple of bad fake mustaches aside, a lot of the footage could be mistaken for a film actually shot during the late ‘60s. All budget and time constraints considered, the one thing that never works in the film’s favour is the unnecessary modern (i.e. 1996) set sequences. These sequences, which are randomly interspliced with the faux-documentary footage, feature awkward exposition from the documentary’s producers and incredibly dopey images of teenagers/twenty-somethings wearing silly costumes, shooting dope, and acting stereotypically ‘cultish.’ They’re not only out of line with the film’s hyper-realistic tone, they’re out of line with the supposed message of the rest of the film, which humanizes and demystifies the events of the Helter Skelter murders. Of course, even when uglied-up, the violence is glorified. The Manson Family is an exploitation film first, art film second.

Manson Family, The


Of all the movies I thought I’d see on Blu-ray, Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family was not among them. I’m even more surprised that this new disc has been released by Severin Films, rather than Dark Sky, the MPI subsidiary that put money into completing the film in 2004 and that first released it on DVD. Whatever wacky events led the film into Severin’s custody, they studio has definitely put some effort into this release, for better or worse. This 1080p transfer is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (some foreign DVD releases were re-framed to 1.78:1) and appears to have been polished since that first DVD. It’s hard to tell for sure, though, because The Manson Family was never made to look ‘good.’ Van Bebber and cinematographer Mike King originally shot the film on 16mm (it was blown up to 35mm for its occasional theatrical releases). The smaller format and condition of the film make for less than ideal 1080p material. All this said, I’m happy to say that this is basically as good as the material could possibly look. When not purposefully damaged by shot-on-video-style scan lines/bayer effects (the movie within the movie is displayed via tube TV screens) or scratchy, artefact-covered 16mm, the image is pretty clean. The 16mm source makes for a grainy image (and occasional flecks of white), but not excessively so and not at the risk of some reasonably sharp details and textures. The colours are muted during the video interviews and the more excessively scratched film footage, but are incredibly vibrant, otherwise, especially the highly stylized crime scene sequences, which are often baked with searing reds, oranges, blues, and violets. Black levels vary throughout without ever appearing unnaturally crushed and highlights are bright without being over-cooked.

Manson Family, The


The Manson Family’s film material is a less than ideal candidate for 1080p, but the original audio – a mix of analogue and digital recordings culled over more than a decade and largely re-recorded in post – is a downright wrong for a 5.1 remix. I’m not sure if it counts as a remix, since the finished version was likely exhibited in 5.1, but making a discrete, multi-channel track out of something as lo-fi and aurally flat as The Manson Family seems excessive. This release features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio version of the 5.1 track (not Dolby Digital, as miswritten on the box art), along with a 2.0 Dolby stereo track. The sound oddly crisp sound quality ends up serving the film’s hallucinatory chaos pretty well. The stereo and surround effects are mostly devoted to abstract sounds, like vocal echoes and various electronic buzzes, but also feature strangely executed ‘natural’ sounds, like barking dogs and howling wolves. I’m not sure if the uncanny nature of these sounds, which were clearly added in post, was absolutely intended, but kind of assume it was. Even if it wasn’t, it works. The centered dialogue is surprisingly organic (when it isn’t very obviously ADR’d), though there’s usually a low-level hiss beneath it all and most set-captured sound effects are a bit tinny. The music varies from folk to classical, metal, and pure noise, including Philip Anselmo, The Disembodied, Body and Blood, and The Download. The music’s tones don’t really match the sounds of the rest of the footage, but give the LFE something more to do and fill out the stereo channels very well.

Manson Family, The


Severin’s Blu-ray comes fitted with all the extras already found on Dark Sky’s 2-disc, unrated DVD, plus a few new bits. The new stuff begins with a solo commentary from Van Bebber. At the top of the track, he makes some kind of comment about ‘making another attempt at a commentary.’ I suppose this means that there was going to be a commentary with the Dark Sky release, until something went wrong. Based on his exhausted tone here, I’m guessing Van Bebber himself, or at least his willingness to chat about the production, was the problem. Overall, this is an informative and revealing track that covers the making of the film and more fully recounts the history of the Manson Family case (which is nice, since there’s not a lot of relevant information elsewhere on this disc). Van Bebber hems and haws a bit, but he also manages to credit his cast and crew, fill in some of the narrative blanks, and paint a decent picture of his intensions for the film, all while answering popular fan questions. He’s also very honest with himself and his audience about what works and what doesn’t, namely the modern-set sequences, which he agrees aren’t ‘fully fleshed-out.’ The sound quality is pretty bad, unfortunately. There’s a lot of background noise and Van Bebber’s voice is quite muffled; though, for the most part, you can understand what he’s saying.

Van Bebber’s latest short film, Gator Green (15:50, HD). Gator Green is an effective companion piece to The Manson Family – it takes place around the same time and follows similarly misanthropic characters (Vietnam vets) as they hang around an alligator-shaped bar waiting for a drug deal. Things go wrong, murders occur, bodies are fed to gators, et cetera. The exclusive extras come to an end with an interview with former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo on his relationship with Van Bebber (9:50, HD) and a selection of deleted/extended scenes with an introduction (14:00, SD).

Manson Family, The
The ‘classic’ extras begin with not one, but two feature-length documentaries. The first is The Van Bebber Family (77:00, SD), presented here in its fully extended form. This behind-the-scenes exploration is made up of a series of interviews, film clips (including Van Bebber’s earliest shorts), and some rough set video and still photographs. The subject matter here begins with Van Bebber & company’s roots, the inception of the Manson Family project, the project’s evolution from exploitation quickie to more honest exploration of the true crimes, the unusual, sometimes dangerous process of shooting the movie, the slow production breakdown, adding the modern day sequences, editing together years worth of footage, the film’s violence, and it’s final release. Interviews including Van Bebber, co-producer/cinematographer Mike King, Van Bebber friend J.T. Anderson, production manager John Mays, business partner Rob Creager, make-up designer, Andy Copp, editor Mike Campone, and cast members Leslie Orr, Marc Pittman, Maureen Allisse, Nate Pennington, Geoff Burkman, Amy Yates, Sherri Rickman (also costume designer), Don Keaton, Jamy Holliday, Josh Hoke, Freddist, Carl Day, and Samuel Turcote.

The second documentary is In the Belly of the Beast (73:50, SD) and it is about the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival where the unfinished version of The Manson Family premiered. This rough, ‘street-level’ guide to festival includes interviews with Van Bebber, Campone, A Gun for Jennifer co-writer/co-producer/star Debrah Twiss and director Todd Morris, Dust Devil writer/director Richard Stanley (who was at the festival with his director’s cut), Subconscious Cruelty director Karim Hussain, Awakening and Aftermath director Nacho Cerda, Deep Red Magazine editor Chas Balun (who, surprisingly, objects to some of the violent content), Fangoria Magazine editor Tony Timpone, and Mother’s Meat & Freud’s Flesh director Demetri Estdelacropolis (who is randomly discovered on the street). This dour documentary, which includes brief footage from the pertinent films, is brimming with stories of various dramatic behind-the-scenes horror stories and features a lot of footage of the filmmakers arguing with angry critics and festival attendees. It’s actually pretty depressing.

The extras are closed out with a random interview with the man/monster himself, Charles Manson (10:10, SD), four trailers, and a promotional reel.

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The Manson Family is still more interesting as a behind-the-scenes story than an actual movie. Director Jim Van Bebber certainly crafted a unique true crime/arthouse/exploitation mash-up, one I recommend whole-heartedly to the right audience (namely people that think a true crime/arthouse/exploitation mash-up sounds like a good idea), but it’s also clearly the messy product of an extremely difficult production process. Based on said chaotic production, the film’s age, and its tiny budget, Severin has done a much better than expected job with this Blu-ray. The image quality is incredibly vivid and clear (as clear as manipulated 16mm can look), the DTS-HD MA sound is surprisingly natural (as natural as a sound mix this weird can be), and the healthy dose of extras include both the Dark Sky release’s documentaries, along with new additions, like a director’s commentary.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.