Jim VanBebber and the Return of ‘The Manson Family’

It represented the end of the ’60s, a sour send off to the whole ‘peace and love’ vibe consuming the country. The Tate-LaBianca Murders in Southern California spawned hysteria in the region, the famous and the not so known cowering over who would be next in the sights of these the unknown spree killers. When it was finally discovered that a failed musician and his hippie commune “family” were behind the crimes, the press and pundits had a field day. They blamed everything on the leader, a diminutive demon called Charles Manson, (no matter who actually essayed the slaughter) and thus a legend was born.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the case,” says writer/director Jim VanBebber. Best known for his indie cult classic Deadbeat by Dawn said obsession became the basis for the brilliant true crime deconstruction The Manson Family. A literal labor of love, it took VanBebber nearly 15 years to complete the film. “While I think (prosecutor Vince Bugliosi’s) Helter Skelter did a good job with the trial aspects of the case,” the filmmaker states,” I wanted to explore what happened with Charlie and the group. To me, that’s the real story.”

Animated and clearly enjoying a revisit to his past, VanBebber talked openly and honestly about his movie in a phone interview before a showing of his film in Tampa, Florida. A transplant to the Sunshine State, the screening will be the first time he’s seen it with a theatrical audience. “It will be interesting to see what happens,” he laughs. “The movie is pretty intense.” Indeed, The Manson Family is a brutal, bloody throwback to the days of exploitation and cinematic excess. A surreal combination of mock documentary, commentary, fictionalized (and factual) recreations of what happened on Spahn Ranch and what inspired Manson to take up arms against the “pigs” of society, it stands as a singular achievement.

VanBebber frames the film around a ’90s TV journalist (Carl Day) who is producing an America’s Most Wanted like series about the crimes. As he edits down the footage, we see recreations of interviews, both at the time, and in prison, with Tex Watson (Marc Pitman), Patty Krenwinkel (Leslie Orr), Sadie Atkins (Maureen Alissa), Leslie Van Houten (Amy Yates), Linda Kasabian (Michelle Briggs), Clem Watkins (Tom Burns) and Bobby Beausoleil (Van Bebber). In the meantime, a group of clearly disturbed youths are immersing themselves in death culture, fetishizing crime and murder into a planned attack on the TV station. “I wanted to show the ongoing influence of people like Manson,” VanBebber explained. “The kids still dig Charlie.”

Using an hallucinatory style that mimics the movies of old, VanBebber would raise whatever cash he could and shoot at night and on weekends. Over the next decade and a half, he would take the film out to festivals, showing it as a “work in progress.” Finally, with the advent of DVD, he was able to get enough money from a distributor to finish the project. When it was released, there were compliments, and confusion. “People thought I was just interested in the sex and violence,” he said, “and there’s a lot of that in there. But I meticulously researched the crimes. I read all I could about the participants. I wanted (The Manson Family) to be more about the people and less about the atrocities.”

Of course, as a genre filmmaker, VanBebber didn’t skimp on the sluice. “These were horrible, violent crimes, and I wanted audiences to see that,” he says. Seeing it with an actual paying crowd may change that opinion. “Sure, you get the people who just want gore, gore, gore, but I want them to be affected by the cruelty and senslessness of these crimes.” VanBebber also argues about the nudity and drug use featured. “That was the times, man,” he offers. Going further, he feels the whole allure of someone like Manson was his antisocial attitude – and his always available ‘harem’ of willing women.

As technology changed, VanBebber’s immoral masterpiece kind of got lost in the shuffle. Now coming to Blu-ray, the roadshow approach to a theatrical run turns an otherwise ordinary release into an event. “My films are my kids,” says the director, “and I want people to experience them. I want them out there, so anyone can have access.” While various locations will be showing the movie in its HD form, Van Bebber believes in the old school approach. “The whole digital thing pisses me off. I shot this movie on film, and I want people to see it on film.” He cites Quentin Tarantino as a hero for sticking to celluloid. “I can handle doing all the post production digitally,” he says, “but filmmaking is about film. You can’t get the same effect with some Red One camera.”

The roadshow is also an attempt to get his latest project out and noticed. “It’s called Gator Green, shot right here in sunny Florida, ” he laughs. “It’s based on the true story of Joe Ball.” Legend has it that the Texas bar owner built an alligator pen behind his establishment to best the local competition. He also used it to get rid of unwanted ‘interferences,’ like old girlfriends. Updating the story to the Vietnam era and taking on the lead role himself, VanBebber is, again, looking backward for his approach. “The 15 minutes we shot are just a teaser,” he offers. “If we get the rest of the money, I want to make a throwback to the days of the drive-in. That kind of film.” Fans will be happy to hear that VanBebber’s vision remains as wild and unwieldy as ever.

The Gator Green teaser features the filmmaker and a few friends acting out a middle portion of the story. We see VanBebber himself feed fake body parts to a real alligator, as well as a gagged and bound half-naked actress standing on a log in the middle of a critter-filled swamp. There’s no stunt gators – they interacted with the actual animals. There’s drugs, drinking, and death – the main elements of any exploitation film – and the overall feel is loose and laid back. Still, there are times both in Gator Green and especially in The Manson Family where you think you’ve actually been transported back in the time. From the quality of the film stock (“we shot on Fuji, and then they went and announced they were closing shop,” VanBebber grumbles) to the use of various old school camera tricks, there is a real sense of seeing something unearthed from 40 years before.

As usual, VanBebber defends his various ‘gimmicks.’ “When you see someone using split screen or multiple exposures, you think, ‘hey, that’s (Brian) DePalma. Some new guy didn’t invent this. Go back to The Cincinnati Kid and see. There have been these various tools all throughout the years. Why not use them?” He goes on to argue that the influence of TV (and to some extent, commercials and music videos) has dulled the creative side of moviemaking. “Everything’s in medium shot,” he says, slightly miffed. “No one wants to take a chance anymore.”

As it continues to play around the country, VanBebber hopes that his film still has an impact. “When you make your movie, you’re just going for it. With Manson, it was years. The reward is seeing it come to life, to see people digging it and getting into it.” He also hopes that his take on the notorious case will become a complement to Helter Skelter, both the book and the two TV films made from it. “Again, I didn’t talk about the trial or the various legal theories,” he clarified. “I focused on the family, and their stories.” It may not be the last word on the ex-con with a Messiah complex, but Jim VanBebber’s The Manson Family remains a true post-grindhouse classic. Seeing it on a big screen only confirms that.