Friday, July 5, 2013

Blu-ray Review: THE MANSON FAMILY (2003)


Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 95 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 
Video: 1080p Fullscreen (1.33:1)
Cast: Marcello Games, Marc Pitman, Lelsie Orr, Amy Yates, Maureen Allisse, Jim VanBebber 
Director: Jim VanBebber  

The Manson Family murders are the stuff of pop culture legend, particularly the murder of Sharon Tate and her unborn child, it was grisly stuff and Jim VanBebber's true-crime docudrama is a punishing and surreal journey into the nightmarish Summer of '69 which spawned these horrific events masterminded by the charismatic and nutty songwriter turned cult leader Charles Manson. 

The film focuses more on the Manson Family than on Manson (Marcelo Games, Deadbeat at Dawn) himself, it chooses to focus on the small group of drug-addled Manson disciples that actually perpetrated the blood lust crimes. There's Tex (Marc Pitman), Patty (Leslie Orr), Sadie (Maureen Allisse), Leslie (Amy Yates) and Jim VanBebber himself as Bobby, and each are pretty great in their roles, particularly enjoyed the performance from Orr whom reminded me a weirded out Parker Posey (Dazed and Confused). While Games' Manson is regulated to a smaller role than what one might assume he's truly memorable, a bright-eyed, charismatic nut, for a low-budget feature the cast really bring this one home with just the right amount of unintentional camp thrown into the mix. 

For a film that was shot over the course of a decade it's surprisingly consistent in tone, it's non-linear in nature and I think that worked to it's benefit given the weird production history. An element that seems slightly out of place is a side-story about latter day Manson disciples out to murder the producer of a true-crime news show whom is making a documentary about Manson. It's set in the mid-90's and it sticks out quite a bit from the rest of the film's retro-aesthetic, it's interesting but draws attention to itself, when it first appeared I was a bit lost. 

The atmosphere of the film are surreal and violent, there's a lot of orgiastic sex scenes including a nightmarish blood orgy with Manson crucified up on a cross and a dog is sacrificed - it's weird and wild stuff, the visuals are fantastic and blasphemous. The murders are truly gruesome, their intimate and uncomfortable  you start to feel like an accomplice at the scene of the crime. It's disturbing stuff and VanBebber doesn't pull away, it's nauseating. Separate from the free-love orgies there's a harrowing group-rape scene, it's graphic stuff and is a bit hard watch, particularly when you take into account that much of this really happened, this is the true-life scary stuff that fantasy-horror like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) just cannot compete with, this actually happened, and it's  a stomach churner. 

Blu-ray: Severin Films bring Jim VanBebber's The Manson Family (2003) to 1080p Blu-ray with its original full frame (1.33:1) aspect ratio. The film looks rough but keep in mind that the film was shot using 16mm cinematography and the film stock was purposefully distressed to give it that retro-60's patina,and it's quite successful. The image quality is pretty solid, colors are strong but the vintage aesthetic comes with a fair amount of film grain, scratches and minor imperfections, it truly does look like an unkempt 60's documentary. 

The Blu-ray disc audio options include an uncompressed English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. The 5.1 audio reigns supreme with some nice use of the surrounds channels, this is a hallucinatory experience visually and the audio mix is strong brew of bizarre bad-acid effects and nightmarish sound collages which accentuate the drug fueled nature of the film.

Previously released on 2-disc DVD in 2005 by Dark Sky Films this new Blu-ray retains all the features from the set and throw in a few new ones, beginning with a very fine commentary from VanBebber who offers a wealth of information about the film, it's production and the true crime events that informed the story, it's not quite feature length, at just over an hour it abruptly ends when VanBebber says he's run out of things to discuss. If you enjoy commentaries you're gonna wanna hear this one, it's pretty insightful. 

Also new to this release is Jim VanBebber's newest short film Gator Green (2013) which is set in the 70's  and revolves around a trio of 'Nam vets who run a gator-themed bar of sorts and a drug deal gone awry, it's a nice slice of exploitation nastiness. 

Another new features is a 10 minute interview Anselmo (Pantera, Super Joint Ritual) whom contributed songs and the voice of Satan to the film. He discusses discovering Deadbeat at Dawn (1988) through Film Threat magazine, meeting VanBebber through director Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), putting up some of his own money to help finance the film and his own fascination with the '72 Manson documentary. 

Carried over from the 2005 Dark Sky DVD are two documentaries beginning with The VanBebber Family (77:00), which appears here for the first time uncut, a feature length documentary about the decade long process of making the film, it's a great watch with interviews from nearly all the major players in the production including cast and crew. Notably missing is any contribution from Marcelo Games who portrayed Manson, the actor has distanced himself from the film for quite a few years, apparently having left the production for personal reasons. Actor Don Keaton whom portrayed Lotsapoppa adds that at the time he wasn't sure if the strange bunch of kids making this film were Manson worshipers or just a weird group of filmmakers, there's some great set stories to be had including VanBebber filming scenes in the nude  alcohol and drug binges and some actual sex on set - it's about a lurid as one might assume after viewing the film which does not take away from the single-minded devotion of VanBebber to finish this film, the man was determined, this is a great making-of doc. 

The second doc on the disc In The Belly of The Beast (73:52) documents the '97 Fant-Asia Film Festival in Montreal where Van Bebber screened a rough-cut of his as-of-then unfinished film. he appears alongside filmmakers Todd Morris (A Gun for Jennifer), Nacho Cerde (Aftermath), Richard Stanley (Dust Devil) and Karim Hussein (Subconscious Cruelty) each filmmaker discussing the trials and tribulations of bringing their independent films to the masses, particularly interesting were the interview with Stanley whom discusses production shutting down on Dust Devil (1992) which he was screening at the festival in addition to being unceremoniously kicked-off The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), there's also an appearance by film-writer Chas Balun of the Deep Red 'zine and a weird, last minute appearance from underground filmmaker Demitrios Estdelacropolis. 

There's also an excerpted Interview With Charles Manson (10:10) from the Charles Manson Superstar doc taped in '89 which just goes to prove the guy's still a nut and thankfully still rotting away in a prison cell. Rounding out the Blu-rays special features are fourteen minutes of deleted scenes which look pretty awful, they were recorded on 1/2 video tape from the monitor of a Steenbeck editing bay, not optimal viewing but it's good to see 'em on the edition. We also get a handful of trailers and a promo reel for the film, this is a well-stacked Blu-ray edition from Severin Films, great stuff

Special Features: 
- Audio Commentary with Director Jim VanBebber
- Gator Green – Exclusive First Release of VanBebber’s latest short (15:47)
- Exclusive New Interview With Phil Anselmo (9:51)
- The VanBebber Family – Uncut Version of ‘Making Of’ Documentary Featuring Interviews with Cast and Crew (77:00)
- In The Belly of The Beast – Documentary On the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival (73:52)
- Interview With Charles Manson (10:10)
- Deleted Scenes (14:03)
- Theatrical Trailers (8:40) 

Verdict: The Manson Family (2003) is a depraved and sickening true-crime docudrama, if you're coming into it looking for the exploitative elements you will certainly find it in spades, if you're coming to it as a true-crime film you're gonna enjoy it but either way you might be offended on some level, and you should be, these were gruesome murders by disturbed young people hopelessly lost under the spell of a charismatic, drug-addled nutjob. This is a nasty slice of modern exploitation cinema and it gets a sweet edition from Severin Films, a powerfully upsetting piece of work. 3.5 Outta 5