Digi-Schlock: MANSON FAMILY (Severin Films Blu-Ray)

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.

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