VISIONS OF HELL: THE FILMS OF JIM VANBEBBER
This Tuesday Dark Sky releases a 4-disc box set of the works of underground director Jim VanBebber. Although he’s been working since the mid-’80s this little box of sleaze represents pretty much his entire output: 2 feature films and some shorts. I think the only thing missing is a bunch of music videos, a trailer called “Chunkblower,” and some 8mm stop motion shorts he made as a kid. The guy is completely independent and uncompromising, this is not a gonna you expect to start directing commercials or be in the running to take over THE WOLF MAN. But I guess if it wasn’t such an uphill battle for him his movies wouldn’t be as interesting.
One of the two features is THE MANSON FAMILY, which he started in 1988 as a quickie exploitation movie that he expected to do in 2 weeks. Then he got obsessed with researching the actual crimes, ran out of money, started up again later and didn’t finish it until 2003. To be honest I’m not a big fan of this one even though some of the filmatism is amazing. It really looks and feels like it was made in the late ’60s or early ’70s. At its best it’s pretty terrifying, a really bad trip. The scene where they cover themselves in dog’s blood during a beachside orgy has to be seen to be believed.
Everybody can enjoy a good dog blood orgy scene obviously, but where it loses me is in the wraparound structure. After his friend who played Manson decided to move on with his life VanBebber added present day scenes about some modern cracksmoking, nipple-piercing punk rock assholes assassinating the producer of a documentary about Manson. Those scenes are pretty stupid and date what would’ve otherwise been an timeless period movie. I also don’t like how much of the story is told through interviews. It’s pretty cool that they took advantage of the long production to shoot scenes where the actors actually are older, but I don’t understand the point of watching fake interviews of real people. It’s like if half of WALK THE LINE was told through interviews with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
But there’s definitely enough going on there for it to be a hell of a curiosity, and the 78 minute making-of documentary “The VanBebber Family” is pretty interesting.
The reason why I’m excited for this box set though is VanBebber’s first movie DEADBEAT AT DAWN. It’s been on DVD before (and with commentaries that aren’t included here) but it’s long out-of-print. I’m glad it’s available again because quite simply this movie is COMPLETELY FUCKING AWESOME and I always like to recommend it to people.
The story behind the movie is that VanBebber had been making 8mm movies since he was a kid, one of them got him a scholarship to film school, then he saw THE EVIL DEAD and decided that he and his friends could make a low budget drive-in type movie. But instead of making a horror movie like most people who are trying to follow in the EVIL DEAD footsteps he made an action movie. VanBebber himself stars as Goose, former leader of the Ravens, whose girlfriend convinces him to quit the gang. But then when he leaves their loft to sell off his last bags of cocaine some of his enemies break in and murder his girl. So he cries, puts her body in a trash compactor, then plots his revenge.
It’s a movie that stands alone because somehow it has both the sleazy, piss-soaked alley feel of something like THE EXTERMINATOR and the charming home-made naivete of EL MARIACHI. It’s shot guerilla style in great decaying locations (rooftops, trainyards, graveyards) but occasionally has cartoonish WARRIORS touches like gang members in Halloween masks or wearing underwear over their pants. And although Goose is shown holding a shotgun on the cover his favorite weapons are nunchakas and ninja stars. I think this is the only movie I’ve ever seen where a character steals a motorcycle by whacking the owner on the head with nunchakas.
It’s a movie you can laugh at a little and still be 100% behind. I always think it’s funny in ’80s gang movies when it looks like the production had to spray their own graffiti but didn’t know what to write. So in this one you get things like “GET HIGH,” “FUCK YOU,” and of course “LED ZEPPELIN.” I’m pretty sure I also saw a 90210 pinup in the Spyders’ squat. But they still manage to make it feel more authentically gritty than alot of those movies. I never get over the scene where Goose tells his girlfriend he’s going to lock the door on their loft, then he goes outside and padlocks it from the outside. Or what about when he tries to crash with his insane, heroin-shooting dad? There are all these holes in the walls and you don’t really know why until he flips out and starts chasing a rat with a baseball bat, smashing up his own home.
VanBebber is more convincing than some might be in his role as a tough guy anti-hero, so you root for him to pull off all the fights and stunts. He’s clearly not a movie-level martial arts expert, but then he keeps doing these kicks that you or I couldn’t do. You have to laugh because you can picture this 24 year old stoner in his backyard or garage intently practicing these moves and nunchaka tricks. It probaly looked pretty similar to the scene where he goes to the cemetery, spins his chucks around, then looks out to the city and yells “YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!” But for a dude in his backyard he got pretty damn good at it.
And best of all are the stunts in the movie. In a “real” movie they would be nothing but since VanBebber just seems like some dude you might know you keep thinking “How the fuck did he do that?” He crashes cars, rapells down a building, jumps off a bridge. And the violence gets brutal. He may not have chosen horror for his debut but you can definitely tell he watched it by the gorey special effects (also done by him). There are faces ripped off, brains exposed, intestines torn out, bodies run over, heads popped off. He gets stabbed and gets his fingers bit off.
I believe this was done for under ten thousand dollars, but it packs in so much more punch and personality than most “low budget” action of the era which were done for alot more money and with more experienced casts and crews. In fact there aren’t that many studio action movies these days that are this fun either.
I’m still not sure what the hell the title means, though.
DEADBEAT has a new high definition transfer, which I wouldn’t notice but I’m sure VanBebber will be happy since he apparently hated the transfer from the old DVD. The DEADBEAT bonus disc has most of the shorts that VanBebber has done. The most famous is MY SWEET SATAN which I didn’t really like, it’s about an infamous murder by stoner metalhead satanists in the ’80s, but for some reason it seems to take place in the ’90s. There’s also ROADKILL: THE LAST DAYS OF JOHN MARTIN which is a pretty effective TEXAS CHAIN SAW homage about a disturbed individual sitting in his house eating roadkill, torturing a couple he kidnapped, and watching TV. KATA seems to be a work-for-hire demonstration film for some karate school. DOPER is a pretty good time capsule of a documentary showing how some dudes spend all day doing nothing but smoking pot and drinking beer, then one of them goes to work at a factory with elderly people who think he’s great and recently made him employee of the month.
The highlight of the shorts is definitely INTO THE BLACK, the movie VanBebber and his friends made in high school that got him his scholarship. It’s alot like DEADBEAT with more MAD MAX influence. VanBebber again stars as a gang member and amateur kung fu practitioner. This time him and his buddy escape from prison and try to rescue his friend’s son, who has been kidnapped by a guy called The Elder. It’s not as easy to watch as DEADBEAT (partly because it’s a silent movie set to heavy metal) but it’s hilarious to see even younger VanBebber and friends doing all this fighting and trying to act tough. I especially love the glued on beards they have in prison. And the car and motorcycle stunts in this thing are unbelievable.
Growing up a heavy metal dude in the ’80s it seems like VanBebber had all the stereotypical metalhead interests: pot, beer, satanic cults, serial killers, gorey movies, hanging out in cemeteries. Most of his characters are losers who spend most of their time sitting around getting wasted, only getting off their ass to commit murder. I’m gonna go ahead and assume VanBebber is not a murderer, so instead when he got off his ass he went out and choreographed sword fights and crashed motorcycles and shit.
Like Goose trying to start a new life away from drugs and violence I’m sure VanBebber is out there somewhere struggling to end his dry streak and get more movies made. I hope he gets his shit together soon. And when he does I hope he’ll do me a personal favor and take a shot at another action movie. There are a million low budget movies about dudes with knives cutting up women, but very few about dudes with nunchakas. “YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!”
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/36877
View the archived Ain’t-It-Cool-News Talkback
May 26, 2008, 10:53 p.m. CST
by Cpt. Arnoldo
May 26, 2008, 10:58 p.m. CST
Who? Wha? Who?
Did you make all this up, Vern? I’m checking my calender and it don’t say April 1.
May 26, 2008, 11:01 p.m. CST
Is the Skinny Puppy video on this?
Spasmolytic? One of their better videos. <br><br>
May 27, 2008, 3 a.m. CST
I feel a bit disturbed…
Maybe it’s just me, or Vern’s continuing evolution as a writer, but it seems like he’s lost some of his distinctive flair in recent months. His trademark phrases, malapropisms, and misspellings seem to have lost their spirit and be tacked on to vanilla reviews as opposed to his earlier stuff, when he uses them for comedic effect. But, I could just be one of the first bitter fanboys of Vern, angry and frustrated that he’s getting less obscure and so I can’t lord knowledge of him over other people.
May 27, 2008, 4:21 a.m. CST
Well, Vern’s Battle in Seattle stuff on his site is still top notch, man.
May 27, 2008, 4:23 a.m. CST
I wish he’d update more often, though.
May 27, 2008, 7:36 a.m. CST
serious question: is this guy a mental case?
by Spandau Belly
I’ve never heard of this VanBebber dude before but from the way Vern describes these movies I don’t get why he doesn’t have a “real” career and my only assumption can be that the dude is crazy or at least has a major personality malfunction because there’s definately a market for these types of movies. I mean, I can’t go to a video store without seeing 50 “Portrait of Serial Killer” DTV deals and have met countless weirdos who’ll eat that stuff up.<br><br>Same with that Deadbeat movie. It sounds like a million DTV actionners out there. So why didn’t this guy get the break that Rodriguez did? Obviously somebody’s heard of him since they’re releasing these movies on DVD. Did he get offered some big shot to directed ‘Yet Another 48 Hours’ or something and just whipped it back in the studio’s face?<br><br>I could understand this guy remaining “fiercely indepedant” if he just wanted to make artsy movies, but it sounds like his passion is exploitationist genre outings.
May 27, 2008, 7:59 a.m. CST
May 27, 2008, 9:55 a.m. CST
Manson Family is worth a look
A lot of it just sort of plods along, then WHAM it reaches real moments of unsettling creepiness.
May 27, 2008, 10:43 a.m. CST
Van Bebber is the Real Deal
While bigger names remake (or pay homage to) no-budget exploitation classics, Van Bebber actually makes no-budget exploitation classics. DEADBEAT is a blast but I think MY SWEET SATAN and THE MANSON FAMILY are better than Vern suggests, as a glance at any random cross-section of “Portrait of Serial Killer DTV deals” will bear out. I own all this stuff already, but it sounds as if I will have to pick this up for INTO THE BLACK. Thanks Vern, for the heads-up and ringing the bell for Goose.
P.S. I don’t know what Van Bebber did to warrant a “special thanks” on Jeff Burr’s STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS, but the film itself is an unheralded DTV gem and well worth a look.
May 27, 2008, 1:15 p.m. CST
I liked Manson Family
by Nico Toscani
Like Vern, I really could have done without the murdering punk rocker framing scenes. The parts in the 60’s though are gold. The odd thing though is how they never use the people’s last names. They just say “Charlie” or “Bobby.” The staging of the Tate/Labianca murders is very, very creepy though. I still haven’t seen Deadbeat at Dawn yet.
May 27, 2008, 1:42 p.m. CST
No argument, the Battle in Seattle review/account is excellent. Maybe it was just a phase, or a product of my own imagination. Hope so.
May 27, 2008, 2:19 p.m. CST
wow, cinematic gold!
I have seen NONE of his films, but he sounds like the kind of guy who’d be at home in the Philippines. ALL our films sound like his! ALL our MAJOR studio films! And wait till he meets our bugfuck crazy indie directors!
May 27, 2008, 2:41 p.m. CST
This sounds very interesting – but no chance of ever getting it here. But thanks, Vern. Hilarious/ insightful as always, and an eye for the off-the-beaten as always.
May 27, 2008, 2:49 p.m. CST
This sounds ****ing awesome
Netflix queue, say hello to Deadbeat at Dawn!
May 28, 2008, 12:23 a.m. CST
Vern god bless you for reporting on what I wouldn’t watch
But am glad to have described to me. We do exist.
May 28, 2008, 12:24 a.m. CST
Also Vern: Give us an Indy Review.
The site needs it.
May 28, 2008, 8:37 a.m. CST
“Snakes they looked like snakes”
You forgot to mention “Bonecrusher” the best character in the movie. Glad to see this on AICN. Almost made me wish I would have shot a seagal vid for ya this weekend. I only have long blonde hair though.
May 28, 2008, 9:55 a.m. CST
The Manson Family
Found it in some bargain bin a few years ago. Thought it might be cool, since I have slight Manson fascination. It didn’t make much of an impression, but after reading this I’m definitely checking out Deadbeat By Dawn.
May 28, 2008, 11:47 a.m. CST
why you don’t hear about Van Bebber
Guy has always had a drinking problem. If you search the net you hear phone calls he made threatening the Don May from Synapse films because he didn’t like the transfer. He in jail while director Karim Hussain(from the belly of the beast extra) did the reversal negative cutting for free.
I love these movies and even still have Deadbeat at Dawn on VHS.
The guy isn’t making movies because nobody will give him money ande also he still ‘only shoots on film’.
I tried to hire him for flick and he refused cause we were shooting in HD. I love the guy, but he is what he is. A drunk who’s no Sam Peckinpah.
May 28, 2008, 4:46 p.m. CST
I just got your book Vern
I had to explain to the guy at the store that it wasn’t ‘like the Chuck Norris one’, which he had presumed (i then had to endure a few “Chuck Norris Facts”). I look forward to reading it soon.
May 28, 2008, 5:13 p.m. CST
Van Bebber a wasted talent
i had the pleaseure of being his friend for 10 years we flew him over to the uk twice to show at our film festival ‘nothing shocking’ and spent many a drunken, drug fuelled night together i spent time at his in ohio and he was a great guy, but drugs and drink have kinda ruined his career and life, which is a shame as he could of been one of the great exploitation of our generation ..thanks for giving him some props vern.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.