Visions of Hell: The Films of Jim VanBebber
Dark Sky Films // Unrated // $39.98 // May 27, 2008
Review by Bill Gibron | posted May 12, 2008
Highly Recommended
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The Product:
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 Plot:
Deadbeat at Dawn
On the fringes of an Ohio town, two rival gangs battle it out for turf and glory. On the one side are the Ravens, run by no nonsense chief Goose. On the other are the Spiders, driven by a deranged, vengeful leader named Danny. After a rumble leaves both men battered and beaten, Goose's girl suggests he get out. She's superstitious, and believes the omens point to something horrific. Sure enough, Danny decides to get back at his adversary by raping and killing his gal pal. He sends the batsh*t Bone Crusher to do the dirty work. Goose is devastated by the loss, and vows retribution. Unfortunately, the Spiders are well protected, and his old friends in the Ravens have joined up with them. After his heroin addicted father forces the issue, Goose rejoins his previous squad. Under Danny's direction, the mob intends to rob an armored car. The potential payoff is $100K. If everything goes as planned, both gangs will be rich. But Danny has plans for his former foes - and Goose will be the first one to pay - and pay dearly.

The Manson Family
It is 1996. TV personality Jim Wilson is putting the finishing touches on a documentary special about The Manson Family. He hopes to remove the focus from Charlie once and for all, who he considers to be the fraudulently, media-supported reason for the Tate-LaBianca crimes. Instead, Wilson wants to lay the blame at the feet of the murderous clan of killers known as the Family, and let the real evil, the one's who actually wielded the knives and fired the guns, to speak for themselves. As he views the footage, we get a chance to see the Family members, as they look today, recounting their individual versions of what happened during that notorious summer leading up to the murders. We also see flashbacks of what really happened, versions either accurately reflecting or wildly contradicting what we are told. And all the while, a band of angry youths prepare to kill the object of their hatred. They don't want Manson or his family's name smeared for the sake of some tabloid tale. And they are willing to murder the man responsible for such slander- none other than Jim Wilson himself.

The DVD:
Forget Death Proof and Planet Terror - this is the real Grindhouse style double feature to celebrate. Jim VanBebber may have a limited creative canon - several shorts, two major motion pictures - but their old school seediness practically pulsates off the screen. Deadbeat at Dawn and The Manson Family are so steeped in the world of passion pits, adult art houses, and segregated showings (one for men, the other for women) that he could be Kroger Babb's illegitimate son. There is a flagrant flamboyance to what VanBebber wants to do, including a real desire to push buttons, boundaries, and limits of social acceptability. He's Harry Novak crossed with David F. Friedman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and a dozen or so other noted names. He also loves the look of old school exploitation, the graininess of the film stock, the limited lighting and off color conceits that give these movies their undeniable deviance. For someone so young to be in tune with such an outdated design means one of two things. Either VanBebber is a sleazoid savant, or he's a real student of the genre. Here's guessing he spent a lot of nights perusing the bottom shelf of his local Mom and Pop video store.

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.

The Video:
There's a strange sort of dichotomy going on between the two differing films offered as part of this set. Deadbeat at Dawn is legitimately lo-fi, resembling the kind of cranked out crudity that the genre is noted for. The 1.33:1 full frame image is grainy, scratchy, and drained of most color. Only the vibrant red of the ample blood (and the weird kaleidoscope cutaways) explode across the screen. On the other hand, there are The Manson Family's purposeful defects. All the editing flaws and age issues are done by the director himself, hoping to capture the look and feel of a '70s style shocker. The print uses lots of wide angle lenses and fish eye fun to achieve its look and it is a triumph of technique. Both movies look good and grotty, although one cheats a bit to recreate a specific cinematic era.

The Audio:
Deadbeat at Dawn comes in a standard Dolby Digital Stereo mix. The dialogue is frequently flummoxed by ambient sound, but the killer thriller score helps aid in the overall atmosphere. The Manson Family offers a carefully crafted, meticulously realized Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that is reminiscent of the work Trent Reznor did for Oliver Stone on Natural Born Killers. This is a mosaic of murderous mania shaped and channeled in a way that literally haunts your home theater system.

The Extras:
For those who want to know more about VanBebber and his unusual approach to film, the four discs offered by Dark Sky Films do a terrific job of providing such clarity. Deadbeat at Dawn's first DVD contains a wonderful collection of making-of material, including a newly created interview with the director as well as a more traditional behind the scenes sneak peek. Both overviews provide the kind of motivational insight and problematic production anecdotes that make this filmmaker's efforts all the more meaningful. In addition, the disc contains some outtakes and a stills gallery. Manson does something similar. The first DVD presents the format's basics - trailers and stills. But it's disc two that really shines. First up in the film length The VanBebber Family, a 78-minute documentary that covers the entire twisted journey of bringing this Manson movie to the screen. Everyone is present and accounted for except Marcello Games, who played Charlie in the film (his absence from the interview footage is never fully explained) and they all have their say in what became a bizarre journey into the heart of fringe filmmaking darkness.

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.

Final Thoughts:
In many ways, Visions of Hell: The Films of Jim VanBebber represents the best that the digital format has to offer. It provides heretofore unheard of films, lovingly preserved for film fans to enjoy, along with a collection of context that really sells the cinematic artistry at work. Not everyone will cotton to these occasionally crude, always outrageous deconstructions of motion picture mayhem, and some will see nothing but 16mm mediocrity and question this critic's credentials. But the truth is that Deadbeat at Dawn and The Manson Family are misunderstood masterpieces lost in a nostalgic haze of raincoat crowd creepiness. They both deserve to be Highly Recommended, and when cast together with the bonus features and short films, this box set broaches the DVD Talk Collector's Series brand. In deference to those who won't (or can't) "get it", the celebrated step before will end up illustrating its worthiness. But be warned - this is exploitation with balls, the kind of movies they used to make before the mainstream (and hardcore porno ) shut down the circuit forever. Jim VanBebber is not just a student of the genre, he's a more than capable member of the moviemaking mythos all by himself.

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