Appellate Judge Tom Becker's vision of Hell involves wrist restraints and the Lifetime Network's annual Mad About You marathon.
He quit the gangs. They killed his girl.
For more than 20 years, Jim VanBebber has been making kick-ass, low-budget films in and around Dayton, Ohio. Long a favorite on the indie circuit, VanBebber's films are usually hard-hitting, testosterone-fueled, blood-soaked pieces that decades ago, would have fit nicely on a double bill with the latest Sonny Chiba offering.
Visions of Hell: The Films of Jim VanBebber gives us the director's complete (to-date) oeuvre (save for some music videos he made for Skinny Puppy and other bands). Two feature-length films, five shorts, and a number of extras are spread over four discs.
The Manson Family (2003, 95 minutes): VanBebber's magnum opus, this vivid re-imagining of the events leading up to the legendary and horrifying murder that effectively signaled the end of the '60s took 15 years to complete.
Deadbeat at Dawn (1988, 80 minutes): VanBebber's first full-length effort, a celebration of violence, kung fu, and drive-in sensibility.
My Sweet Satan (1994, 19 minutes): VanBebber's take on a 1984 incident in which teenager Ricky Kasso (here called "Kasslin") murdered another teen, demanding that the victim declare that he loved Satan (the kid kept screaming, "I love my mother!" instead).
Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin (1994, 14 minutes): An Ed Gein-like guy waxes crazy and kills and eats people.
Doper (1994, 20 minutes): A sweet-and-sad doc about aimless—but employed and functional—stoners.
Kata (1990, 6 minutes): A martial artist, practicing alone, imagines fighting enemies.
Into the Black (1983, 35 minutes): A teen-age VanBebber made this surprisingly assured and violent film on 8mm; VanBebber used Into the Black to get into film school.
VanBebber casts himself in most of his films, and he's a strong, compelling presence. With his natural athleticism (he's an accomplished martial artist, thus the emphasis on kung fu) and hang-dog handsome looks, VanBebber would be right at home in a '70s Euro action-schlock movie.
For my money, the two best films on this set are the true crime stories, My Sweet Satan and The Manson Family. My Sweet Satan is a fairly straightforward re-telling (with characters' names only slightly changed from those of the actual participants) of an incident that got a lot of press at the time and has been the subject of a number of films and books. VanBebber's short-story approach is near perfect, direct, uncluttered, and free of moralizing or simplistic psychoanalytics; only the ultraviolence, alternately disturbing and slightly silly, brands this as a low-budget effort. As Ricky, the Satan-worshipping "acid king," VanBebber turns in one of his best performances.
The Manson Family is pretty great, a perfect amalgam of drive-in smut, true crime exploitation, and indie film pretension. Unlike MSS, The Manson Family is not merely a recounting of an infamous crime—in this case, what went on at Spahn Ranch and Cielo Drive. VanBebber sets out to debunk much of what has been accepted about the Manson story and deglamorize it, and he adds a coda that emphasizes its continuing relevance (which, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the film, as it takes us away from the actual Manson story to show a bunch of uninteresting '90s kids "getting theirs" in Charlie's name against an investigative reporter). This film was started in 1988 and worked on in fits and starts over the next 15 years before getting a (limited) theatrical and DVD release in 2003. Courageous, compelling, unsettling, profane, and brutal, The Manson Family is an outstanding example of resourceful indie filmmaking. This two-disc set—including a full disc of extras—was released in 2005 and can be purchased separately from this set. (For more on The Manson Family, see Judge Dan Mancini's original review, listed in the sidebar.)
Deadbeat at Dawn is VanBebber's ode to goresploitation, the perfect drive-in movie that, unfortunately, was made as drive-ins were dropping off the horizon. The director/actor plays Goose, a slimy gang guy whose attempt to go straight(ish) results in all manner of bloodletting. VanBebber's remarkably choreographed fight scenes are the show here—particularly remarkable because there was no budget for things like special effects and stunt doubles. When Goose jumps off a bridge to avoid being run down by a speeding car, that's actually VanBebber jumping off a bridge to avoid being run down by one of his co-stars. The plot's not much—if this weren't so graphically violent and muscular, it could almost be a parody—but the adrenaline rush of Deadbeat at Dawn doesn't leave a lot of room for storytelling anyway.
The obvious predecessor to DaD is Into the Black, which is arguably the greatest no-budget, 8mm, made-by-teens, kung-fu-and-gore epic ever. Seriously. Hokey, yes, with scenes ranging from silly to awesome (again, the fight choreography, not to mention an impressive "duel" between a car and a motorcycle). It's obvious that even as a kid, VanBebber "got" film. He understood pacing and editing and visual impact and storytelling and set up. He loved the medium, and Into the Black and Deadbeat at Dawn are love letters to the action-hero films (think Bronson, Norris, Stallone) of the late '70s and early '80s.
The remaining films are worthy of a look, if not two. Doper is a charming piece that, like the stoners it portrays, overstays its welcome a bit. Kata is interesting in a one-trick way. Roadkill is another variation on the "crazy guy who's also a cannibal" theme, and frankly, it brings nothing new to the table. Maybe I'm just hardened by all the recent direct-to-DVD digital video-shot product and its over-reliance on fake blood and animal intestines and can't look beyond that to see the greatness that is Roadkill. Or maybe it's just a gory, 15-year-old short film. Either way, I'm glad it's here—the set wouldn't be complete without it—but it's not something I'll watch again.
Dark Sky Films has done a good job with this release. The films are packaged as two two-disc sets, with The Manson Family and its copious extras in one case, and Deadbeat at Dawn, its supplements, and the short films in the other. The films look good for their age and origins, though damage is evident here and there, particularly on Into the Black and Deadbeat. They sound great—The Manson Family gets a 5.1 surround track, and everything else has a clear 2.0 stereo mix.
There are a lot of fun extras here. The Manson Family has an entire disc of supplemental material, including 75 minutes of interviews with VanBebber and many of the actors. This is especially interesting given the amount of time that lapsed between the beginning of the project and its completion. The Deadbeat at Dawn disc includes a shot-on-VHS (in 1986) "Behind the Scenes" featurette and a recent interview with VanBebber.
Since Tarantino and Rodriguez mainstreamed the term for their uneven homage, it seems that anything more than 20 years old and shot on the cheap with liberal amounts of sex and gore is labeled "grindhouse." Vanbebber's films are the real deal.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
• "The VanBebber Family"
• IMDb: The Manson Family
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