Short Ends and Leader

Jim VanBebber and the Return of 'The Manson Family'

After nearly a decade in the DVD wilderness, Jim VanBebber's incredible The Manson Family is being roadshowed around the country. In this interview, the filmmaker talks about his past, his present, and his propensity for film.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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