It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since The Manson Family made its debut on home video.  The Dark Sky dou­ble-DVD set was excel­lent for its time, boast­ing a qual­i­ty trans­fer and plen­ty of good sup­ple­ments.  That said, the advent of the blu-ray and the demand for vin­tage cult fare it has spurred have made it pos­si­ble for Severin to revis­it The Manson Family.  The results not only offer an improve­ment in A/V qual­i­ty, they also pre­serve and expand upon the excel­lent sup­ple­ments of its orig­i­nal DVD incar­na­tion.

The new HD trans­fer is quite impres­sive.  One thing often over­looked in dis­cus­sions of The Manson Family is that it is a very skill­ful­ly shot film: Mike King’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy is kinet­ic and uses col­or in a bold, splashy way.  This new trans­fer cap­tures those nuances, giv­ing them clar­i­ty with­out sac­ri­ficing its inten­tion­al “rough” cel­lu­loid qual­i­ty.  5.1 and 2.0 loss­less stereo tracks are pro­vid­ed with this trans­fer.  The 5.1 track was used for this review and it’s very impres­sive, giv­ing an appro­pri­ate­ly immer­sive treat­ment to the film’s unusu­al­ly com­plex mix.

Those who didn’t see the Dark Sky dou­ble-DVD edi­tion of this film will be hap­py to hear that its impres­sive extras have been car­ried over to the blu-ray.  The first is The Van Bebber Family, an 80 min­ute video doc­u­men­tary that inter­views almost all the par­tic­i­pants as it lays out the lengthy, fas­ci­nat­ing saga behind the mak­ing of this film.  It was direct­ed by David Gregory and the end pro­duct ranks right up there with his long-form DVD doc clas­sics like The Joe Spinell Story and The Godfathers Of Mondo.

Van Bebber is appro­pri­ate­ly front-and-cen­ter in this piece, with major con­tri­bu­tions from producer/D.P. Mike King, stars Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse and sev­er­al oth­er mem­bers of the cast and crew.  It chron­i­cles the film from its gen­e­sis as a quick­ie fol­low-up to Deadbeat At Dawn, chron­i­cling how bud­getary woes and extend­ed peri­ods between film­ing led to the grad­u­al meta­mor­pho­sis into the mul­ti-tex­tured, mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional piece that cult film fans know.  It’s excel­lent stuff, full of fas­ci­nat­ing triv­ia, behind the sce­nes footage and can­did, off-the-cuff opin­ions from every­one involved.  It also dou­bles as a trib­ute to Van Bebber and his all-con­sum­ing, mul­ti-year ded­i­ca­tion to com­plet­ing the film.

Also includ­ed is In The Belly Of The Beast, a 75 min­ute doc­u­men­tary about the 1997 Fant-Asia Film Festival. It’s an essen­tial piece of The Manson Family his­to­ry because it was one of the first places it was shown as a work in pro­gress alongside sim­i­lar­ly edgy cult items like Aftermath, Dust Devil and A Gun for Jennifer.  Van Bebber is inter­viewed at length as well as oth­er noto­ri­ous cult film­mak­ers like Nacho Cerda and Richard Stanley.  A sub­plot is pro­vid­ed by the efforts of fest pro­gram­mers Karim Hussein and Mitch Davis, who have includ­ed their own opus-in-pro­gress Subconscious Cruelty as part of the fes­ti­val.

As it pro­gress­es, the film becomes a sober­ing look at the dif­fi­cul­ties of pro­duc­ing gen­re fare on the fringes of com­mer­cial cin­e­ma.  Richard Stanley tells night­mare sto­ries about his dif­fi­cul­ty mak­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing films in a dead­pan man­ner, plus Todd Morris and Deborah Twiss have their own soul-crush­ing tale to tell about the financ­ing of A Gun For Jennifer.  It also shows the dif­fi­cul­ties of exhi­bi­tion: Cerda has a hard time explain­ing Aftermath, par­tic­u­lar­ly when Chas Balun con­fronts him about his artis­tic inten­tions, and Hussein vis­i­bly strug­gles when deal­ing with an audience’s con­fused reac­tion to Subconscious Cruelty.  This doc­u­men­tary has no short­age of mem­o­rable mate­ri­al and will prob­a­bly make fans appre­ci­ate the tra­vails of their cult film­mak­ers a lit­tle more.

Another key ele­ment from the orig­i­nal release is a video inter­view seg­ment with the real Charles Manson, essen­tial­ly a ten min­ute mon­tage of clips from the under­ground doc­u­men­tary Charles Manson Superstar.  What might seem to be a throw­away at first quick­ly reveals itself to be an impor­tant piece of the puz­zle – as you watch Manson bab­ble on in an ever more inco­her­ent fash­ion, it rein­forces the the­sis of The Manson Family by show­ing Manson nev­er had enough on the ball to be the lethal pup­pet­mas­ter he’s been made out to be.

The first of the new addi­tions is solo com­men­tary track by Jim Van Bebber.  You might be wor­ried when he says upfront that he didn’t want to do a com­men­tary and that the film is hard for him to talk about — Van Bebber even stops after an hour, say­ing he’s said all he can say — but the track is worth hear­ing despite his ret­i­cence.  He is thought­ful and sur­pris­ing­ly sub­dued as he offers intri­cate back­ground info on the Manson case, includ­ing a lot of info about peo­ple at the fringe of the case that even those famil­iar with the case might not know.

Van Bebber also goes into detail about the choic­es he made in reshap­ing real events for the pur­pose of telling the sto­ry on film, includ­ing where he cre­at­ed com­pos­ite char­ac­ters, gave one person’s dia­logue to some­one else for dra­mat­ic pur­pos­es — and even where cer­tain Manson fam­i­ly mem­bers are omit­ted for legal rea­sons.   Elsewhere, he notes where Roman Polanski’s ver­sion of MacBeth influ­enced a par­tic­u­lar scene, dis­cuss­es his work­ing rela­tion­ship with Phil Anselmo and which sce­nes were the most chal­leng­ing to shoot.  Despite his mis­giv­ings, Van Bebber offers plen­ty of tid­bits that the film’s fans will want to hear on this track.

Another debut on this disc is Gator Green, a short that Van Bebber made to pro­mote a fea­ture of the same name.  Van Bebber also stars in this short, play­ing the lead­er of a trio of deranged ‘Nam vets who run a gator-themed bar in the back­woods.  As they gear up for a dope deal, their bare­ly repressed homi­ci­dal urges erupt in a dis­play of car­nage that incor­po­rates the gators in the swamp out back.  The results are raw around the edges — there are some iffy per­for­mances and forced ele­ments of retro kitsch — but the film­mak­ing is pret­ty effec­tive, with the pho­tog­ra­phy, edit­ing and sound mix being pret­ty advanced for such a shoe­string pro­duc­tion.  It’s bet­ter and more con­vinc­ing­ly “grind­house” than any­thing Rob Zombie ever made and will no doubt make fans hope that Van Bebber gets to make the fea­ture ver­sion of this sto­ry.

The last of the major new addi­tions is a ten-min­ute inter­view with Phil Anselmo, the for­mer lead singer of Pantera who did the score for The Manson Family.  He talks about his admi­ra­tion for Van Bebber’s ear­ly work, how Buddy Giovinazzo put him togeth­er with Van Bebber and how and why he com­posed speci­fic pieces for the film.  It’s a nice lit­tle sup­ple­ment to The Van Bebber Family and fans of the film’s score will no doubt appre­ci­ate its inclu­sion.

The pack­age is round­ed out by four trail­ers for the film, essen­tial­ly two trail­ers in “green band” and “red band” ver­sions that do a nice job of sell­ing the film’s hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry feel.  Along the same lines, a copy of the pro­mo reel orig­i­nal­ly used to pro­mote the film to investors in fans.  Many fans of the film saw this long before they saw the film itself via the tape-trad­ing scene so it’s a nice bit of his­tor­i­cal ephemera to have on this set.  Finally, there is an exten­sive still gallery and series of delet­ed sce­nes that clue the view­er in to how impro­visato­ry the per­for­mances and dia­logue were dur­ing the shoot.

In short, Severin has assem­bled a pret­ty defin­i­tive spe­cial edi­tion for The Manson Family.  If you already own the DVD, the trans­fer and new sup­ple­ments make it worth the upgrade.  If you don’t, con­sid­er it an excel­lent way to explore the dark­est sides of the Manson sto­ry.

TMF Trailer 2013 RedBand from Severin Films on Vimeo.