Visions of Hell: The Films of Jim Van Bebber
by Matt Wedge
Available from Dark Sky Films
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The term cult filmmaker gets thrown around far too casually these days. While there are no set rules as to what separates a cult director from his or her mainstream counterpart, it’s safe to say that when a director has been making features for over 20 years, and managed to spend 15 of those years on one film, he’s probably not a multiplex darling. Such is the case with Jim Van Bebber. On the short list of obscure filmmakers who truly deserve the cult label, he is pretty close to the top of that lineup. Even though his films vary wildly in quality, through each one you can see the creative stamp of a fiercely individual creator who constantly seems to turn his camera on disenfranchised kids and the terrible choices they make that usually result in senseless violence.
This four-disc set from Dark Sky Films contains the features Deadbeat at Dawn and The Manson Family, along with five short films. While the features are of primary interest, it’s the short films that help trace the growth of Van Bebber from an enthusiastic kid running wild with a camera to a mature filmmaker capable of creating a hypnotic and terribly sad work of art out of a lurid real-life tragedy.
Filmed on the (ahem) mean streets of Dayton, Ohio, Deadbeat at Dawn (started in 1985 but not completed until 1988) is Van Bebber’s first feature. It’s a trashy, cheaply done action flick that follows Goose (a surprisingly effective Van Bebber), a gang leader who quits his life of crime at the insistence of his girlfriend Christy (Megan Murphy). But when his former rival kills Christy, Goose goes on a bloody mission of vengeance. Nihilistic in tone, with terribly uneven acting and amateurish special effects, the film is salvaged by some actual suspense leading up to its well-staged climactic battle. As a sample of Van Bebber’s action choreography and his skills as an editor, it’s worth watching, but the laughable dialogue and mostly poor acting make it a tough slog to wade through. While the transfer and sound quality are rather rough, it’s still an impressive presentation for such a low-budget production. Bonus features on the disc include outtakes, a still gallery, a behind the scenes video and a fairly candid interview with Van Bebber.
As far as the short films go, three of the five could have been left out of this collection and I wouldn’t have missed them. Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin is a gory riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that Van Bebber could use to make the case that he invented the torture-porn trend long before the Saw films came along. Kata is a martial-arts piece that is fairly well done, but is so slight it left my mind right after I watched it. And while I’m sure that it was intended to draw a laugh, Into the Black is an amateurish action piece that looks like something a couple of teenagers shot in their backyard. Of course, that’s exactly what it is. I suppose it could be of interest for obsessive fans, but at 30 minutes, it’s the definition of overkill.
The two shorts that really point to the evolution of Van Bebber as a director are Doper and My Sweet Satan. Doper is a documentary about a group of guys from the Midwest in their early 20s. At first glance, they appear to be nothing more than potheads who philosophically ramble, get high and get drunk. But a clever switch is pulled as Van Bebber finds the humanity behind these kids, who hold down decent jobs, have healthy relationships and even excel academically. While it’s technically rough around the edges, it’s an unexpectedly hopeful look at young men that most people would write off without a second thought.
Any thoughts from Doper that Van Bebber might be turning into an optimist are dashed by a 19-minute descent into hell on earth called My Sweet Satan. It’s the story of what happens when a bored punk gets mixed up with the self-proclaimed “Acid King” and Satan worshipper, Ricky Kasslin (an unrecognizable Van Bebber). Needless to say, with its mixture of drugs, unchecked aggression and teenage faux-nihilism, the story turns to some very dark places before its shocking and gory conclusion. Filmed in 1993, at the time, it was the most impressive nugget in Van Bebber’s filmography.
Started in 1988 and not completed until 2003, The Manson Family is a piece of work that is the definition of a divisive film. There’s a fine line between intense drama and high camp. Depending on your personal taste, the film could fall on either side. For me, Van Bebber manages to travel right along that line like a tightrope walker. And make no mistake; this film is a high wire act. Juggling three different storylines that take place 25 years apart, the potential for the film to turn into a chaotic mess is always just one bad cut away. But Van Bebber is so skilled at creating different shooting and editing styles for each storyline that he was able to pull me into a situation where I felt compelled to watch through to the bitter end, even though I knew how tragically it would all turn out.
What’s most impressive about the film is the way Van Bebber is able to have his cake and eat it too. He manages to take what is essentially an exploitation film that capitalizes on the mythos that has built up around Charles Manson and turn it into a critical look at the constant media attention that the crazy idiot gets to this day. It’s an audacious trick that should reek of hypocrisy, but Van Bebber manages to pull it off. In the end, despite the exploitation trappings of graphic violence (and it is incredibly brutal in the murder scenes) and gratuitous group sex scenes, this is a surprisingly moral film. It’s a great piece of filmmaking that left me emotionally drained, which is not something I can say very often.
The bonus features include two trailers and a still gallery. An extra bonus disc features two documentaries that run around 75 minutes each. The first is The Van Bebber Family, a well done set of interviews with Van Bebber and the cast that covers the making of the film and the pressures it put on all involved during its fifteen year on and off shoot. The second is In the Belly of the Beast, a loosely put together piece that chronicles the 1997 Fant-Asia film festival where The Manson Family was shown as a work in progress when it was titled Charlie’s Family. It’s worth watching if you have the time but can easily be skipped without worry that you’re missing something important. The disc also features an interview with Charles Manson doing his crazy hippy act that has been seen hundreds of times before. Given the point that Van Bebber tried to make with his film, the inclusion of the interview seems rather hypocritical.
Overall, this is an impressively complete collection of a truly independent filmmaker. Even if some of the works included are less than stellar, it’s still worth checking out if only to see a great presentation of The Manson Family. Whether you find it a worthwhile work as I did or a crass attempt to cash in on cold-blooded murder, there is no denying that it’s a powerful film.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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