Obsession is a beautiful, myopic, driving, dangerous taskmaster. It can create works of art or cause murder. In a diluted form, it also inspired this story about a work of art about murder. What am I talking about? Well, to find out, you’re just going to have to creepy-crawl backwards in time with me, indistinct faded memories growing clearer in color and force and focus as we find ourselves back around the…
Christmas of 1989. I am 20 years old, and on my first visit to the US. A friend, Justin Stanley, and myself are staying for a couple of days at the Orange County, Los Angeles abode of writer Chas Balun. As some of you may know, Balun is the (in)famous editor of legendary Deep Red magazine, a journal about horror films, and which was the first ever venue to print something I had written.
Chas shows us (at that point) hard-to-see oddities like “Deranged”, the early 1970s splatter flickershow based on Ed Gein’s grisly exploits starring Roberts “Home Alone” Blossom as the motherlover cannibal. Being young gorehounds at that time, we lap this stuff up. But amidst all the sanguinary spillage chaos, he shows us a triptych of wild, violent, hedonistic, nihilistic 16mm underground efforts from “this really hip young kid” Jim VanBebber that wipe us out.
These include the gritty, trippy splatter/martial arts/biker/drugs feature “Deadbeat at Dawn;” the vile, insane, cannibal murderer short “Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin”…and a trailer for an unvarnished, no-holds-barred feature about Charles Manson and his extended young murderous acidhead brood, “Charlie’s Family.”
Brief history lesson: the Manson Family were a group of American loser loner kids who fell under the Svengali-like bloodshot gaze of ex-con Charles Manson at the end of the ’60s. Manson was once sold by his mother as a baby for a pitcher of beer; didn’t exactly come from the most stable of backgrounds. So he gathered his impressionable young wannabe-free-and-spiritual hippie acolytes and took them onto an isolated California commune called the Spahn Ranch, where he fed them full of acid, f****d them physically and psychologically and then sent them out into the world to do his crazed bidding.
The apex of all this psychotropic screamadelica insanity came when the Family went out and committed several murders for Manson, notably the slaughter of pregnant Sharon Tate, the actor wife of Roman Polanski. The Family and Manson were all jailed for this in 1970 and remain in jail until this day. The film trailer we see in 1989 is a teaser for the soon-to-be released end product (the film, that is, as opposed to the incarcerated cons), we are told. Little do we (or indeed the director) know how long that tease will turn out to be.
Anyway. Flashfastforward a few years until 1992. Myself and my ex-best friend Dave meet the director whose stuff we have come to love after repeated viewings on a poorly-copied videotape (Quotes from “Roadkill” like “Reality! Whadyou know about reality?” becoming part of our daily vocabulary) over the previous couple of years. Jim is at the Nothing Shocking horror film festival in Northampton, England. He is there as the Guest of Honor to show “Deadbeat at Dawn” and jabberjaw with the audience. Dave and myself immediately waylay him and buy him loads of pints of Beck’s, finding him to be an interesting, intense, animated conversationalist. By the time Jim is meant to address the audience all he can say, swaying unsteadily onstage in front of them, is “Are you guys as drunk as I am?” before trying a karate kick (for some reason) and falling flat on his back.
End of Q&A.
The next year, inspired by his rabidly riotous reception at Nothing Shocking, Jim makes the excellent 16mm short “My Sweet Satan”. This violent, nihilistic (yes, you may be starting to detect a thread here) film is based on the notorious Ricky Kasso US metalhead murder/suicide case from 1983…and is absolutely excellent. Meeting the director again down in London at a showing of the film at the now-sadly-deceased grindhouse Scala Cinema that year, I ask how “Charlie’s Family” is getting on. Coming along, I’m told, coming along, won’t be long now.
Onwards now to 1996. I meet up with Jim again in Los Angeles (on a trip where I will end up jokingly threatening Pete Jackson with violence at a signing he is doing for “The Frighteners” in a sci-fi bookshop; remind me to tell you about that one sometime) and, over a night of booze and Fellini soundtracks, ask him once again about the Manson epic. I am told Jim is in negotiation to get completion funds to get the thing finished, a line I will hear a few more times over the next few years. But somehow, these funds never quite seem to materialize, and the visceral, “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror” (to quote JG Ballard) film becomes more and more mythical with every passing year, almost as much as the subject matter it portrays in unflinching, graphic, horrific close-up.
A couple of times I try and help get Jim completion funds for the film, but it never pans out. And the story of this film assumes some sort of weird significance in my own mind. I want to see the completed film, not the rough cut sent to me by cinematographer Mike King, and I wonder (as do many others in the world of underground film fandom) if I ever will. I want to be able to write about the finished film and its extremely long, hard journey to the cinemas and DVDs of the world. And I’m not even interested in horror or underground films these days; couldn’t care less.
It’s the oddest thing. Over the 14 years since I first saw the trailer for “Charlie’s Family” I would have occasional thoughts about it. I’d be, say, listening to the excellent Foetus album “Nail”, with its song “DI-1-9026” (about the maniacal Manson murders and with as-usual-excellent lines by JG Thirlwell like “The positive collects negative/so gimme your mind/free your mind”) and I will think to myself, I wonder how Jim’s getting on with his film. It actually became something I couldn’t let go of myself, for no clear reason. Obviously, however, not on a level with the director’s mental anguish at the length of f*****g time the thing was taking to get to the screen.
Compounding the bizarreness was the fact that the film’s script was published in a lavish, beautifully illustrated book by Creation Books in 1998, which Jim described to me as being “the most back-asswards way to make a movie you can imagine.” True enough. Can’t be many films that have their script come out in book form years before the film ever sees the light of day, or of projector.
As you obviously will have guessed by now, this is the article about how the 16mm docudrama “Charlie’s Family” finally wound up finished after a mere 15 years. When I saw on this site that the finally-fully-f*****g-finished film was being show on December 19th and 20th, 2003, in Jim’s old hometown of Dayton, Ohio (he now lives in LA), where it was filmed, I thought, well, that’s as neat a place to end this epic Technicolor trek as any, taking it back to where it all began all those years ago.
I hadn’t spoken to Jim for a couple of years before this interview because, to be perfectly honest, he can be pretty difficult to deal with and I’d fallen out with him. You may have heard stories about him, but I’m not going to go into that f*****g tabloid garbage here. All I wanted to know from the man was how he got his own personal celluloid obsession done and out and about; nothing more, nothing less.
So that’s what you’re going to get. I have tremendous respect for the fact he has finally got the damned thing finished and can move on in his life. He followed his uncompromising vision right to the end of the family line. Well done, Jim. I’m sure you can hear the applause from across this side of the Atlantic. Not before f*****g time too. And you of all people should know…
…If you wanna get some kicks, phone DI-1-9026.
Get the interview in part two of END OF THE FAMILY LINE>>>