Published at: May 26, 2008, 10:52 p.m. CST by quint
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!"