Manson Family, The (Blu-ray)
Released by: Severin Films
Released on: June 11, 2013.
Director: Jim Van Bebber
Cast: Marcelo Games, Jim Van Bebber, Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr
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We all know the story of Charles Manson and his ‘family’ of killer hippies. He brainwashed them using sex, drugs and rock and roll into doing his evil bidding, culminating in some seriously grisly murders – the best known of which occurred in Hollywood with the murder of Sharon Tate and her unborn child. Since then, the media has portrayed Manson as a sort of boogie man, still alive and well in prison to this very day. Every once in a while he applies for parole, and every time he gets tossed back in the clink. At any rate, Manson has almost become part of American popular culture, which is pretty bizarre when you think about it. But bizarre is what Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat At Dawn) seems to do best, so who better to make a feature about Manson than he?
In many ways, Van Bebber’s film focuses more on the family than on Manson himself. Seeing as it was the family that was responsible for the bulk of (if not all of) the killings, this makes for a pretty nasty little movie. Charlie (played here by Marcelo Games, also of Deadbeat At Dawn) is essentially a spiritual leader to some already very screwed up beatnik types. He’s really only a supporting character in the film. Van Bebber’s take on the Manson mythos gives us a fly on the wall account in the form of a pretty realistic fake documentary film, interspersed with an unnecessary and distracting sub plot about some modern day disciples of Manson exacting their revenge on a tabloid TV journalist. While this was probably supposed to function as a way of tying the events of the film together with modern day society (it plays off of the whole ‘your children will rise up and kill you’ angle of the cult), it doesn’t fit the tone of the ‘retro’ footage.
Van Bebber and company made a point of shooting the film on 16mm and roughing up the footage enough to give it a very authentic look, recreating a lot of the documentary footage that’s out there surrounding the exploits of the titular characters we follow here. Those who have seen the 1972 documentary Manson will find many familiar recreations in Van Bebber’s film that look, feel and sound like the real thing. To the filmmakers’ credit, they’ve done a pretty good job of making their material look like it was shot in the late sixties and obviously paid plenty of attention to getting the period detail right. Juxtaposing it against the modern day footage, none of which is as well made as the other material, doesn’t do the movie any favors. It’s easy to see what they were trying to do, but it doesn’t work as well as it could have. It’s too…. B-movie, too random, there isn’t enough of a proper setup for it to have much impact outside of the violence it carries with it. The actors aren’t as convincing as those involved in the Manson family footage and it really just feels out of place.
That one small to medium sized issue aside, (the ‘modern day’ footage really only adds up to a few minutes of the total running time) Van Bebber and company did a great job with this picture. There are some seriously twisted and frightening moments here (pay special attention to the blood orgy that occurs just over half way through the film, it’s filled with religious iconography and blasphemous imagery that really drives home how evil these people were, regardless of who was to blame for it all!). Some of these moments don’t have anything to do with the infamous murders at all, nor do they need to, but instead focus more on the psychological aspects of what Manson was able to convince his followers of. ‘Charlie is God, God is love, therefore Charlie is love.’ There’s drug use prevalent throughout the film and there’s plenty of ‘free love’ style sex on screen as well, but it doesn’t feel out of place or forced within the context of the movie. It’s interesting to watch the characters develop under Manson’s influence from happy go lucky hippies communing at the Spahn Ranch to cold-blooded, acid eating killers.
Marc Pitman (another Deadbeat At Dawn player) as Tex, Leslie Orr as Patty, Maureen Allisse (who had a bit part in Van Bebber’s Roadkill) as Sadie, Amy Yates as Leslie, Tom Burns (also of Deadbeat and My Sweet Satan) and the director himself as Bobby all put in pretty solid turns in their respective roles. While you wan’t see anyone winning an Oscar here, for a low budget independent movie made over roughly fifteen years, the acting is definitely above average and surprisingly consistent. Look for the late Andy Copp, Mutilation Man (a film in which Van Bebber starred) director, in a small role and listen for the voices of Phil Anselmo and the late Sage Stallone over the narrative (as well as the music of Anselmo’s post-Pantera project, Superjoint Ritual, which plays over the ending). Pretty much anyone with any connection to Van Bebber seems to have turned in one thing or another on this project.
The visuals and the sound mix border on the surreal at times, more often than not when LSD is involved in the story. The ‘acid trip’ look of the film works well and gives the movie a hallucinatory quality that suits the events and the era occurring on screen. The much lauded violence and brutality that the film was talked about having before its official release is still intact, though it may not prove to be as over the top as some have claimed, at least not to those of us who are a bit jaded in terms of on screen gore. Still, what is there is quite well done despite a few times where prosthetics and effects work are visible – better this than lousy CGI, however and all in all the gore effects are very solid. Much of this is because of the way the camera jumps around a lot, rarely giving us time to notice who realistic one knife wound looks compared to another but when it comes time to ‘creepy crawl’ the results are unsettling to say the least.
The gang rape sequence, which is particularly harrowing with its dental and ocular close ups, is a very good example of how clever editing can give a low budget movie just as much if not more impact than anything Hollywood is willing to churn out these days. The Tate-LaBianca murders and the events that followed it are particularly nasty though the film does fall short of showing the full on assault that happened to Sharon Tate in real life that night. Ultimately, this one hits like a brick. It’s strong stuff, but it’s so well done that, despite its flaws, it’s a very effective and unsettling piece of work.
Severin Films presents The Manson Family in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. Detail is about as good as it can get here, keeping in mind that much of the film has been intentionally ‘degraded’ to make it look like sixties era documentary footage. For the most part, it works and it works well. Shot on 16mm stock, this is obviously going to be a pretty grainy looking feature but that suits the tone of the film really well and gives it that feel of authenticity that is generally so hard to get when going for a vintage look. Colors look very good here and there aren’t any obvious issue with compression artifacts to note nor are there any issues with edge enhancement or noise reduction. The end result is a pretty film like representation of some grubby source material, and this is quite a nice improvement over previous DVD releases.
Audio options are offered in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio (the packaging incorrectly states Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound) and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, both tracks in English with no alternate language options or subtitles/closed captioning of any kind provided. Both tracks sound quite good, the 2.0 mix the more subdued of the two and the 5.1 track opening things up in terms of effects and most noticeably the score. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the music, mostly made up of work from Download, Phil Anselmo and Charles Manson himself, has good range and depth to it.
Extras for The Manson Family are pretty extensive, starting with a commentary from Van Bebber himself. It’s a pretty lively track, Van Bebber isn’t known for mixing words and he pretty much calls it like he sees it as he offers up some interesting background information on the movie and the people he made it with. He talks about staying true to the actual events that the movie portrays, about the long and ridiculously difficult road he travelled to finally get the movie finished and about different technical aspects of the movie as well: effects, lighting, cinematography and what not. It’s a good discussion that fills in a lot of the blanks behind the history of the picture.
Carried over from the Darky Sky Films DVD release from a few years ago (though presented in its uncut form for the first time) is the feature length documentary The Van Bebber Family that interviews almost everyone associated with the film (Marcello Games does not appear here and has pretty much disassociated himself with the film for personal reasons). All interviewed discuss their admiration for Van Bebber’s direction style (he directed parts of the film naked, just like the actors) and much is made of the cast’s penchant for drugs and booze during the shoot, which all agree added to the picture’s authenticity. Jim discusses the many problems that the picture ran into over its decade long production schedule and we learn why people with pubic hair shouldn’t engage in genital on genital contact with fake blood is all over their bodies. This is, in many ways, as interesting as the feature itself and for should be considered essential viewing for anyone with even passing interesting in the trials and tribulations of making a low budget independent film.
A second and equally interesting documentary, also carried over from the last release, entitled In The Belly Of The Beast is a look at Van Bebber’s trip to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival. This is also quite interesting, though for very different reasons. Appearing alongside a host of other interesting ‘fringe’ filmmakers like Nacho Cerde, Richard Stanley and Karim Hussein as well as genre stalwarts like Tony Timpone and Chas Balun, this lengthy look at Montreal’s gift to world cinema really gives you a good feeling for what the festival is all about and why you should care.
Also carried over is a ten minute interview with Charles Manson himself. Originally taken from the Charles Manson Superstar documentary, this is an interesting clip that shows that Charlie is just as nuts now as he ever was. New to this disc is a ten minute interview with Phil Anselmo, he of Pantera, Down and Superjoint Ritual fame. Here he talks about how Buddy Giovanni put him in touch with Van Bebber after he had seen and been impressed with Deadbeat By Dawn. Anselmo then goes on to discuss his admiration of the director’s work and his contributions to this picture by lending his voice to the part of ‘Satan’ and providing some music for the feature.
Also new to this release is Van Bebber’s latest short film, the sixteen minute long 16mm production entitled Gator Green. The story, set in the early seventies from the looks of things, revolves around a few deranged Vietnam vets lead by Van Bebber who operates a roadhouse shaped like a giant alligator somewhere in rural Florida. When their drug dealer comes by to sell them a bag of weed, Van Bebber’s character snaps and… well, we won’t spoil it here but doesn’t take rocket scientist to figure out that things go from bad to worse very quickly. The transfer is AVC encoded 1080p high definition with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track in English, no subs or dubs provided. It’s a pretty intense little movie with some great gore and some twisted elements of black comedy running throughout.
The Blu-ray also includes some deleted scenes, roughly fourteen minutes worth. These aren’t in very good shape at all but they’re interesting to see and their inclusion is certainly welcome. Rounding out the extras are four different trailers for the feature, a promo reel for the movie, animated menus and chapter selection.
The Final Word:
As twisted and confrontational as it is startlingly effective, The Manson Family arrives on Blu-ray from Severin Films in a pretty fantastic package, carrying over all of the extras from the past DVD release and throwing in a few choice new additions, highlighted by Van Bebber’s latest short film. Despite some flaws with the ‘modern’ footage, the feature holds up very well, a testament to what can be achieved without bowing to mainstream concessions and a grueling and nasty horror picture based on some all too horrifying actual events.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!