Written by: George Pacheco on June 25th, 2013
BluRay released: June 11th, 2013
Approximate running time: 95 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080 Progressive
Sound: DTS-HD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Stereo English
BluRay Release: Severin Films
Region Coding: Region 0
Retail Price: $29.98
Jim VanBebber has long been considered by many cult film fans to be one of the most unique creative voices in the world of horror and drive in exploitation, a position which is certified here upon the Severin Films release of VanBebber’s notorious true crime epic, The Manson Family.
VanBebber-a Ohio native who rose to infamy and promise with his first full length feature Deadbeat At Dawn in 1988, a film which he wrote, directed, acted and produced-is a relentless, no holds barred director, embodying the fiercely independent spirit of old school, guerrilla film making. The Manson Family displays this in spades, and is the result of a shooting period lasting over ten years, during which VanBebber and his dedicated cast and crew struggled to overcome financial and personal challenges in order to complete this harrowing and draining cinematic project.
The film itself recounts with chilling accuracy the lives of those who fell in with Manson and his family during the late 1960s, detailing everything from everyday drug use and sex orgies to the eventual paranoia and violence which would bring a swift and violent end to the “peace and love” vibe of the hippie movement. VanBebber’s attention to detail is stunning here, as is his cast’s ability to portray, with believable sincerity and commitment, the chaos and mania which defined this infamous period of American criminal history.
The Manson Family tells the story of its characters via interview footage and flashbacks, as the cast recount their experiences with differing levels of hysteria and ice-cold callousness. These interviews make up a second, wrap around sub-plot of the film, one which centers around a television producer who is working on a 25 year anniversary expose of the Manson murders for his shock news show.
This sub-plot is significantly less interesting and appealing than the actual Manson material, as it centers around a group of similarly disenfranchised youths who are plotting to kill the aforementioned T.V. producer. Although the structural narrative is sound, the characters of the kids aren’t nearly as well fleshed out, with their motives, if any, remaining shadowed by their comparatively modern appearance (tattoos, piercings, etc) and deviant, S&M behavior.
This sub-plot really only makes up about twenty or so minutes of the film’s running time, and doesn’t make enough of a lasting impact to really detract from The Manson Family, the only exception to this being a particularly crass and unsatisfying ending sequence which really doesn’t do the previous ninety minutes much justice, and in fact seems tacked on and unfinished.
Of course, this all makes a bit of sense given the film’s troubled production, and is forgivable when one really sits down and appreciates VanBebber’s vision of the Manson Family for what it truly is: forthright and unflinching. At no point does the director soften the blow when it comes to the acts of unspeakable violence perpetrated by the Family, nor does VanBebber ever bow to sensationalism or gratuitousness when it comes to his tone.
Instead, VanBebber’s eye is fixed firmly upon telling the facts of this case, while at the same time delivering a psychedelic and unnerving slice of cinema which works in some true moments of fear and unease. The events which lead up to the Tate-LaBianca Murders are shot with a particular eye and attention for detail, despite the truly grisly and gruesome matters at hand. As a result, the film’s third act stands as a cold, sobering dawn for the hippie dream.
Severin’s Blu-Ray release certainly serves as a definitive release of the film up to this point, bettering the already excellent DVD release from Dark Sky Films-as part of the Films of Jim VanBebber box set with Deadbeat At Dawn-in a number of ways. In addition to the fantastic 1080p HD resolution of VanBebber’s full frame, 1.33:1 film, the Severin Blu Ray arrives armed with hours of extras, including a near feature-length commentary from VanBebber which was absent from any prior releases of Manson.
Other extras include an uncut “making of” documentary, deleted scenes, a second documentary covering the film’s screening at the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival, as well as interviews with VanBebber collaborator and musician Phil Anselmo and Manson himself, taken from a previously released DVD of Charlie interview footage titled Charles Manson Superstar.
Jim VanBebber’s The Manson Family doesn’t focus entirely upon Charles Manson. The director does a great job at exploring the characters of the Family, from Tex Watson and Sadie Atkins to Bobby Beausoleil-played by VanBebber himself-and Leslie Van Houten, while Marcello Games does a great job at portraying Manson as an aware, charismatic manipulator, rather than the shapeless boogeyman the “character” of Charles Manson has become over the years to many Americans.
As such, it’s not a out of the question to list Jim VanBebber’s The Manson Family as one of, if not THE best cinematic renderings of the Charles Manson case next to Helter Skelter, the 1976 T.V. movie classic. The world will never forget what went down at the Spahn Ranch and beyond in Southern California during the late Sixties, and VanBebber’s film offers up a chilling portrayal of these troubled times with grim, realistic honesty.
Note: This review originally appeared at Examiner.com and is reprinted here with permission.