Fans of old fashioned exploitation like to point to Frank Henenlotter and his infamous film Basket Case as the last legitimate example of pure grindhouse aesthetic. Using New York's 42nd Street as a backdrop and a wealth of genre knowledge, it truly is a wonderfully weird little horror homage. But there is another filmmaker who really understands the supremely satisfying nature of a slimy sleazoid romp. Taking his cues from the more mean spirited offerings within the category, his sadistic cinema celebrates violence while relying on the gonzo guerilla style that made the old independent experience so exciting. While his most recent film, The Manson Family, has been a DVD staple, his first foray into full contact craziness, Deadbeat at Dawn has been hard to find since Image released it back in 1999. Now, Dark Sky Films is releasing both titles in a wonderful four disc box set that includes some knockout added features. Together, the product provided argues for Jim VanBebber's rightful place along the exploitation geniuses of the past.
The Manson Family
Deadbeat at Dawn begins the carnage in full Combat Shock mode. Using his Ohio locale like just another burned out, bummed up urban nightmare, this gore-drenched action epic plays like a highlight reel from a dozen derivative shoot 'em-up splatter fests. As a director, VanBebber languishes in the language of film. He understands basics like mise-en-scene and shot selection, keeping the narrative moving without deadening the pace or the blood drenched spectacle. Sure, the storyline is pure cinematic cliché - bad guy tries to leave his life behind, his woman pays the price, he goes Paul Kersey on everyone - and there's nothing new about a Warriors style beat down between guys in greasy hair and bad jean jackets. But thanks to the electrifying way VanBebber realizes his vision, the full frontal assault of both his subject matter and audience, we tolerate the formulaic plot turns. As a matter of fact, he keeps things so juiced up and aggressive that we lovingly anticipate where the contrivances will take us. The answer is usually someplace brutal, ballsy, and frequently filled with all manner of human offal.
It's clear that VanBebber the director thinks VanBebber the leading man is one stellar steely man of action. If he wasn't being true to all the grindhouse gods that came before him, one would swear this was some manner of vanity project for the auteur. He is undoubtedly one of the more compelling elements onscreen, with Paul Harper (as Danny) and Marc Pitman (as a truly scary Bone Crusher) a close second. Also interesting is the found location atmosphere the director employs. There are buildings and side streets that appear disconcerting on camera, let alone as the backdrop for action and dialogue. In fact, the entire off the cuff concept of the film - shots snatched before the police arrive, acting arch and amateurish, fight moves choreographed for ease of execution as well as quickness of capture - adds to its authenticity. While we know we are watching fiction (and exaggerated dramatics at that) we still sense something rooted in realism. This may not be how actual gang wars went down in the '70s, but it sure feels that way. Deadbeat at Dawn may seem like nothing more than Death Wish delivered by a group of martial arts loving metalheads, but there's an old fashioned drive-in delightfulness to what VanBebber manages. It provides the perfect set up for his follow-up masterwork.
As this critic's original review of this title suggested, The Manson Family is one of the most remarkable films ever made about Charlie and his criminal clan. Audacious, inspired and overdosing on the scurrilous and the sleazy, this director takes the already legendary tale of a deranged cult Messiah and turns it on its pointed little head. By removing the focus from Manson, by doing away with his self-righteous rants and bugf*ck bravado, we actually learn a great deal about the genuine family dynamic. While they are often portrayed as victims of Charlie's mind games, or lost and lonely hippies who took a wrong turn in the California desert and ended up as a madman's minions, we see the psychosis fester and grow inside each of our crazed clan members, and understand all too well why they would lash out at the Establishment in the horrible, bloody way that they did. While the rationale for why those brutal crimes were committed sounds a little suspect (so did Bugliosi's Beatle based prosecution, for that matter), trying to give Bobby BeauSoleil a post-incarceration alibi for a previous killing seems sane once you learn the logic skill possessed by many of the Family members.
Using a 1970s exploitation ideal for this flashback filming, the main part of The Mason Family looks like actual documentary clips of Spahn ranch in freefall. With the use of post-production techniques to age and scratch the film, along with a 16mm shooting style, the hand held, flat lighting legacy of a myriad of sordid drive-in films is perfectly captured on the Manson movie canvas. There are times when you actually feel like you're watching a Texas Chainsaw Massacre take on the Tate-LaBianca murders. When it stays in its main story, The Manson Family is incredibly absorbing. It turns troubling however when the modern footage tries to act as a counterpoint, and craven Greek chorus, to the Family's felonious fever dreams. The group of gloomy Goth throwbacks preparing to assassinate a television host, seem almost antithetical to what VanBebber wants to do. Luckily his highly stylized approach taken with the wonderfully evocative look at these grotesque acts (the murders themselves are depicted with autopsy like nausea) give this film its fundamental appeal. And since what's inside is so amazing, so unlike anything attempted by current independent minds, it makes the Helter Skelter anti-heroism go down much easier.
Equally compelling for different reasons is In the Belly of the Beast. It showcases the 1997 FanTasia Film Festival in Montreal. Looking at several different movies on the marquee, this is a journey into the Hell that is guerilla filmmaking. VanBebber and his movie are part of the mix (it is shown as "a work in progress" under the title Charlie's Family) and it's interesting to hear how everyone has the same sad story about financing and failure. Every creative person here has their own personal horror tale about illegal activities, the involvement of lawyers, and the confiscation of prints. In the end, we learn that as long as an audience - any audience, sees their film - then it will all be worth it for these obsessed movie mavens. There's even an interview with Manson himself.
Some of the best bonus material is saved for last, however. As part of Deadbeat's second DVD, we are treated to five of VanBebber's short films. They include the infamous My Sweet Satan (gruesome, but good), Doper, Kata, Into the Black, and Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin (equally evocative and craven). Each one is satisfying in their own sick way (gorehounds take note - there's some major nastiness present in these pieces) and illustrates where VanBebber got his ideas and his inventiveness.