Almost fifteen years in the making, DEADBEAT AT DAWN director Jim VanBebber’s most ambitious film THE MANSON FAMILY gets the high definition treatment in Severin Films’ tenth anniversary Blu-ray edition.
While preparing a television special on Charles Manson and his “family”, reporter/producer Jack Wilson (Dayton-area news anchor Carl Day) receives a threatening letter and a videotape from a group of modern day punk Manson-ites. Like the film’s director, Wilson’s focus in his documentary is not on Manson (Marcelo Games) the manipulator, the puppet master, the boogeyman, or the devil, but on the “kids that put the knives and bullets in the victims”: former Sunday school teacher Patty (Leslie Orr), homecoming queen Leslie (Amy Yates), born-again Christian Sadie (Maureen Allisse), musician Bobby (director VanBebber), and former high school football captain Tex (Marc Pitman) who became Manson’s bloodiest butcher. The film attempts to depict how the family went from a screwing/tripping commune on the ranch of blind Old George (Norris Hellwig) to a knife and gun-wielding Death Valley militia. Through the conflicting modern day videotaped accounts of Patty, Leslie, Sadie, Bobby, Tex and others (all of the actors having aged more than a decade since the start of the shoot, but also aged further through some quite good make-up for a low budget film), the turning point seems to have been Manson’s shooting of black drug dealer Lotsapoppa (Don Keaton) who he believed to have been a member of the Black Panthers. Fearing retaliation, the virulently racist Manson isolated his family in the desert and drilled them for a coming race war.
An alternative turning point, however, seems to have been the battering Manson’s ego took when music producer Terry Melcher (Mark Gillespie) reneged on a recording deal with him (indeed, the film’s focus on the family also significantly diminishes Manson’s persona to that which seems more in line with what we see of him in the CHARLES MANSON SUPERSTAR excerpt [10:09] included on the disc). Although Manson orders the murders in the film, he seems to have been hands-off as far as the details, only asking for something not so messy with the Tate murders; this doesn’t downplay his culpability but it makes the killers seem less like brainwashed drones acting solely on orders and mentally unable to see their victims as human beings (as one of them claims in the latter day interviews). Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that their accounts conflict in the details and are often contradicted visually and aurally by the enactment footage. It’s a horrible series of crimes for which Manson and his family are held accountable (of Vincent Bugliosi’s case against Manson, VanBebber states in the film’s commentary and the documentary – see below – that it at least achieved a conviction); the injustice of course isn't just the loss of the victims but also Manson's enduring status as a pop culture icon (and worse).
Dark Sky originally released THE MANSON FAMILY on DVD in barebones rated and two-disc unrated versions in 2005 (followed by a 2008 reissue in a four-disc VanBebber boxed set with DEADBEAT AT DAWN, MY SWEET SATAN, and his short films), most of the extras of which have been carried over to Severin’s new Blu-ray. The new 1080p24 AVC MPEG-4-encoded transfer – framed at its original 1.33:1 or thereabouts – is probably the best the film can look with its patchwork look (in the commentary, VanBebber explains that the “Grindhouse” look of the film was achieved not digitally but by actually scratching the film with abrasive products like kitty litter!). The colors are appropriately garish when required while bringing out the natural beauty in some settings (which was probably not intended). Although the back cover specifies lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround audio options, the disc itself actually contains the 5.1 track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and the 2.0 downmix in Dolby Digital. The 5.1 option may sound rather grand for a film of this budget (particularly one completed in 2003), but it is not an upmix or a remix. When Blue Underground’s David Gregory and Carl Daft – now of Severin Films – came in to provide VanBebber with the means to finish the film (see below), VanBebber insisted on doing a 5.1 studio mix for the film (whether the film’s theatrical screenings actually played with that or a matrixed Dolby Stereo track isn’t clear); and he created a hellishly cacophonous detailed surround mix that was ambitious for the time but not as sophisticated as what one can do even with a desktop setup nowadays (although it’s probably better-judged than what some younger filmmakers spoiled for choice might achieve).
VanBebber did not record a commentary for the original DVD editions; or rather, he seemingly attempted to record one but – as he admits here – he is still not comfortable talking about the experience (and indeed he bows out just after the one hour mark before the graphic climax). The Dark Sky edition had a very satisfying 2005 David Gregory-directed feature-length documentary “The VanBebber Family” (77:00) which has been ported over here. In addition to VanBebber’s structuring comments, the narrative of the film’s decade-long shooting schedule is filled in by the welcome participation of actors Pitman, Orr, Allisse, Day, Keaton, and the punk actors as well as cinematographer Mike King, editor Michael Cappone, effects artist Andrew Copp (who died this January at age forty), costume designer Sherri Rickman, and others. King describes how the improvised contemporary interviews with the family not only contributed the RASHOMON structure to the film, but also solved the problem of the unfilmed interstitial material. Some of the actors remained more in character than others (Pitman for instance had to be prompted and reminded of details by VanBebber, but it contributed to the sense that details are being made up to make the character come off better). The actors talk about “growing up on the film” as their lives went on in between the shoot with marriages, children, and military deployments, and they offer their varying opinions on VanBebber’s framing device of the modern splatterpunk Manson-ites. We also see the homemade gore effects – like hollowed out eggs filled with stage blood and hurled at actors to simulate bullet hits (as well as VanBebber actually spitting blood from off-camera onto the face of one of the actors for blood splatter).
Although many of the participants draw parallels between VanBebber and Manson – and their own dogged dedication to him and the project as “the family” – a noticeable difference is that VanBebber’s increasing erratic behavior and cracks in his personality seem to stem not from blows to his ego over the stoppages of the production and the loss of his studio, but from the responsibility he felt to the people in front of and behind the camera to honor their dedication and the risks they’ve taken as much as his own vision in the face of funding offers that might have compromised it. He also fully realizes just how essential the contributions of his cast and crew – including director of photography King and editor Cappone – were to his realization of the final product, and is more diplomatic about actor Games’ departure from the production (a partner in their film company, he was uncomfortable playing the role and was chosen by VanBebber and King based on how he looked at the time) than some of the other participants (editor Cappone was the one to realize that they actually had all of the footage of him they needed since the focus was on the other characters). VanBebber’s new commentary, however, is not without interest. He discusses his extensive pre-Google research and his decision not to interview any of the members of the family because a) he did not want to make any friends with any of them, and b) their stories not only whitewashed their participation but also contradicted one another and changed every time. He says he downplayed the depiction of Sharon Tate's death so as not to elevate her over the other victims who were no less important; however he also admits that he had no desire to shoot the killing of a pregnant woman (no matter how unpleasant he meant the entire sequence to be).
Also carried over from the DVD edition is the documentary "In the Belly of the Beast" (73:16) shot at the 1997 Fant-Asia film festival in Montreal where VanBebber premiered his work-in-progress cut of the film – under the title CHARLIE’S FAMILY – in hopes of drumming up more funding to finish the film. In addition to interviewing VanBebber, the documentary appears to be the source of the interview footage with Mike Cappone that appears the aforementioned “The VanBebber Family” documentary. The documentary offers a thumbnail sketch of the protracted shoot and the funding problems (including stories about VanBebber selling his own blood for money) as well as footage from the sold-out premiere. Similar coverage is afforded to the other films showing at the festival: A GUN FOR JENNIFER (in which writer/director Todd Morris and co-writer/star Deborah Twiss reveal that their loan officer producer embezzled money from his company and skipped the country, leaving them financially responsible for the money he gave them and temporarily suspected of being accomplices), Nacho Cerda’s AFTERMATH (which provokes a debate between Cerda, late critic Chas Balun, VanBebber, and festival programmer Karim Hussain), Richard Stanley’s director’s cut of DUST DEVIL (the director discusses how the film fell into limbo after Palace was bought out by Polygram, as well as being fired from the 1996 production of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU), and the outspoken Hussain’s own SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY (incidentally Hussain and Stanley would later collaborate on entries in the recent anthology film THEATER BIZARRE).
New to the Severin edition is an interview with composer Phil Anselmo (9:50) who talks about his fascination with Manson, meeting VanBebber through Buddy Giovinazzo (COMBAT SHOCK), giving VanBebber some money to shoot more footage, hiring him to direct some of his music videos, as well as the theme he wrote for the film (patterned after a similar theme in the 1973 film MANSON). The selection of deleted scenes (14:02) are in horrid condition not because of the preservation of the elements, but because they were videotaped off the editing monitor presumably for an earlier release of the film. Aside from Tex’s arrival at the ranch there’s nothing crucial; but a longer version of Sadie scouring the ranch for weed does show us a bit more of the layout and the various activities going on in between the sex and drugs. Severin have ported over 2003 Green Band (1:01) and Red Band (1:59) trailers from the Dark Sky release, and have also included new 2013 Green Band (1:57) and Red Band (2:15) trailers, as well as an original “Promo Reel” (2:23) which features some of the extra bits from the deleted scenes in slightly better condition.
Also new to this release in addition to the commentary is VanBebber’s most recent short film GATOR GREEN (15:46) in which the director plays Vietnam vet Captain Jack Andrew, the proprietor of the titular alligator-shaped tavern who – with the assistance of his disabled (and equally unbalanced) former sergeants Harry (Troy Grant) and Bobby (Rogan Marshall) – feed draft-dodgers (and marines) to the surrounding swamp’s gator population EATEN ALIVE-style. It’s all very broad and a feature length might have better developed something of a social commentary; but one can assume that VanBebber was serious when he said he wanted to get away from the realities of THE MANSON FAMILY in favor of pure entertainment. Surely this release is a must-have for fans of the director and the film specifically, but cult fans should probably see the film at least once. Severin is releasing THE MANSON FAMILY in both a Blu-ray edition and – for five dollars more – a Blu-ray/DVD combo set. (Eric Cotenas)
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