Note: The following stories are a combination of myth, vague memories, drunken conversations, and manic obsession. While it may be hard to follow at times, or perhaps, completely unintelligible at moments, the basic foundation is there to do what it needs: Lovingly honor the mythos of Jim Van Bebber and his films. Without further adieu, step into my brain…and wipe your feet first ya’ goddamn animals!
When I was younger, I remember all the stories that would circulate about King Diamond throughout metal circles. Certainly, heavy metal publications did nothing to disspell any myths pertaining to the enigmatic front man for Mercyful Fate. Naturally, as kids do, we bought in to any sort of story that made the rounds. He lived in a castle lit only by black candles. He kept virgin blood in his home to drink as part of his Satanic rituals. The album, Melissa, was actually named after a woman he’d sacrificed to Satan. He owned Dracula’s actual tomb and slept in it. All these things were real to a young, impressionable metal head…and all of them were completely fabricated. The reality of the situation? He’s a Danish heavy metal musician named Kim Bendix Petersen who’s flair for the dramatic horror-themed stage antics lead to him taking on the moniker King Diamond. The King has an expansive vocal range that allows him to turn on the evil at a moment’s notice. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries (you know, all those current, relevant musicians Rick Santorum recently chastised), King Diamond does practice LaVeyan Satanism, a philosophy he subscribed to long before Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible was in publication (so he claims). Still, none of these facts verify any of the urban legends we’d heard when we were young. Instead of a castle, he lives in Texas. And instead of Dracula’s coffin, he sleeps in bed with his wife, Livia. In recent years, this mystical creature’s powers have been challenged by a series of health issues. After suffering from a herniated disk in his back in 2007, he also underwent a triple bypass in 2010. Evil indeed…
As an adult, I’m clearly able to see that King Diamond was not the evil Satanic Overlord I’d thought him to be in my youth. Rather, he was a very charismatic artist who’s application of corpse paint and a top hat lead to him taking on a unique persona; one that happened to frighten children and the religious right. Kim Petersen is an incredibly talented artist. His years spent as King Diamond have given him the rare opportunity to allow urban legends to drive a legacy rooted in mystery. It’s free, brilliant marketing that keeps his career moving along. It doesn’t lessen his value to heavy metal, but it does shed a lot of skin from that “evil” image he’s so well known for.
This was the long way around me introducing the subject for this article: Jim Van Bebber. Van Bebber was a film student at Wright State University who put his education to great use creating 2 widely recognized cult films: The Manson Family and Deadbeat At Dawn. There’s absolutely nothing conventional about his work. In fact, there’s an obvious deliberate manner in which he went against the grain to make these intensely fucked up movies.
Still wondering where the King Diamond analogy comes into play? I’ll get to that…
I do remember (at least, I think I do) a VHS copy of Deadbeat At Dawn. It wasn’t one that I owned, but I distinctly remember seeing it. There were comparisons made to Combat Shock, sure, but there was something all together different about this movie. If you’re not familiar with Deadbeat At Dawn, here’s a quick rundown: 2 rival gangs, the Ravens and the Spiders, have been long embroiled in a turf war to rule the streets. Goose (played by Van Bebber) is the leader of the Ravens…but, he wants out. He’s ready to settle down and make an honest woman out of his psychic girlfriend. Before Goose makes his exit from gang life, he agrees to one last drug deal. This leads to Goose’s life taking a turn for the worst. Members of the Spiders viciously beat the love of his life to death. With nowhere to turn for help, Goose disposes of her body in a trash compactor and seeks refuge in the home of his father who happens to be a junkie AND a lunatic. Here, Goose plots out his violent revenge that culminates in a bloodbath of kung fu and bullets.
Deadbeat At Dawn was a movie reflecting the trouble of its times. It was a product of disenfranchised views on the Reagan administration, gang violence, drug epidemics all rolled into one colossal indie film. Deadbeat At Dawn is widely regarded as a prime example of what masterful independent cinema can look like. Van Bebber’s ability to utilize his resources while not skimping on quality storytelling culminated in one kick ass movie. It’s a mix bag of exploitation, action, kung fu, and dismal urban drama that could only be told in the way Jim Van Bebber could. Think of many of the New York-centric films of the early 80’s, as well as all of the gang-related films of the same era and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Deadbeat At Dawn is all about. What would follow Deadbeat At Dawn, however, is what certifies Jim Van Bebber as a “Director You NEED To Know”.
In 1988, Van Bebber opted to tackle one of the most heinous stories in America’s modern history as a film subject: The Tate Mansion Murders, and more specifically, Charles Manson’s family. The Manson Family (which became the final release title) is Van Bebber’s take on Charles Manson’s grip on a group of people that acted out his vile wishes. The film’s foundation is rooted in the facts of the this true crime lover’s wet dream, but Van Bebber’s approach to the movie was (decidedly) unique. The combination of the story itself and a “Bad Trip”-esque psychedelic twist approach the Manson story in a way never done before or since. It’s a movie that effectively takes poetic license with reality-and one my words will never properly do justice.
As previously stated, The Manson Family’s production dates back to 1988. The film’s official release on DVD was 2003. Van Bebber’s movie appears to be as much an arduous task as it was a labor of love, depending on which stories you’ve heard/believed. The movie itself is a back-and-forth between the psyched-out interactions of the Manson cult and sobering interview segments with the various ex-cult members (also portrayed by actors, of course). After that many years of production, one would guess that that’s exactly how something like that would shake it in real life, too. The final edit of the film flows very nicely despite having been in production for so long.
The Manson Family is something I remember reading/hearing about. I did not see the actual movie until it’s DVD release. It’s not that I didn’t want to! I loved Deadbeat At Dawn. It felt so original that I knew I would have to like the next film Van Bebber unleashed. Unfortunately, it was something I never got my claws on in the form of a bootleg. It had that dubious distinction of being like Cannibal Holocaust (for me). There was a boatload of respectable hip folks praising this movie. That isn’t necessarily the standard by which any movie should be measured, but when you have no point of reference to go off of, you’ll take what you can get.
When The Manson Family was actually released, it was to solid fanfare. It came out on DVD during a period when slick remakes were the majority of the releases in theater and on disc. As a fan, I was quite excited. I made a point to pick that up on the day of it’s release and it was everything I’d hoped for. A psychedelic, hyper-violent, sexually-graphic head trip that took the reprehensible crimes perpetrated by the Manson clan and tied them to the current fears of this generation. For a movie that had begun production nearly 20 years prior, The Manson Family felt very modern. It spoke from the viewpoint of the criminals themselves instead of taking the conventional true crime route we were so accustomed to. The dichotomy of how the family works is brilliantly laid out by the cast, which is a credit to Van Bebber’s writing and direction. It didn’t look like anything being released at the time. It didn’t sound like anything being released at that time. But most importantly, it didn’t feel like anything being released at that time. For lack of a better term, The Manson Family is one fucked up movie. Even the most hardcore of hardcore flicks has its moments of lighthearted fodder. That sentiment was nowhere to be found in this movie. It was coming at you both guns a-blazin’ as a proper Jim Van Bebber film should.
I wouldn’t be a proper fan if I didn’t start immediately poking and prodding about, trying to figure out what the man was working on. After all, I’d experienced 2 of his features (and a short film called Satan’s Little Helper) and wanted more. Information on what he had going on was pretty scarce on Jim Van Bebber in 2003-2004 I quickly discovered. I couldn’t find traces of him anywhere. Had he disappeared? Had he stopped giving up on movies all together? My heart was saddened. Here’s where that whole King Diamond analogy becomes apparent…
Over the years, Jim Van Bebber’s name has come in and out of my life. From clear back to a VHS copy of Deadbeat At Dawn, up to the DVD release of The Manson Family his work is something I’ve craved more of. He has continued working. He’s done music videos for bands like Pantera, Superjoint Ritual, and Necrophagia. But when it comes to movies, there has not been an official release of his in some time (at least, that I’m aware of). I’ve heard him referred to as a “certifiable nutjob”. There’s been plenty of urban legend surrounding who he is and what he does. I am not privy to what of this is actually true. My barometer for such things is much different than it was when I was younger. Had I heard about him at the same time I’d heard all that crazy shit I’d heard about King Diamond, he would’ve been an equally menacing yet fascinating presence. Definitely one I would have wanted to explore heavily in the way I did anything my parents would’ve considered evil.
I don’t know Jim Van Bebber personally. One can only assume that stories about him and his work are exaggerated, as is the case with most counter culture figures. Here’s what I do know: Jim Van Bebber is a director worthy of your attention. His films are very important to the modern history of independent films. The foundation of both of his features are well known concepts/stories but his take on them is a completely original one. He’s not so easily forgettable. For someone with so few films to his credit, he makes a very lasting impression. This is the mystique of Jim Van Bebber. If you were to walk into a horror convention or perhaps, a more subversive (aka weird) film fest and ask 10 people about him, you’d possibly get 10 different responses. The one constant you will find, however, is the emotion in those responses. He seems to be “that” kind of individual. Not necessarily polarizing, but definitely a person who invokes spirit in the people who discuss him and his movies. Believe me, if you were to ask some of our Blood Sprayer writers (namely Courtney Wyant and Jeremiah Genson) about Jim Van Bebber’s name coming up in conversation (particularly when I’m a few drinks in), they will tell you that I get rather excitable. I think he’s brilliant and if I had my way, I’d want everyone on the planet to see Deadbeat At Dawn.
WHEN WE TWO MET…
While a lot of what I’ve written thus far is based on myths and whispers, there is a solidified, verified, story of fact that I can share about Jim Van Bebber-the one and only time I’ve ever met him.
Jeb and myself were in attendance at Cinema Wasteland (as I often am) going on 2 years ago. My primary reason for attending this show? You guessed it: Meet Jim Van Bebber. It’s something I’d wanted to do for quite some time. As always, Cinema Wasteland remains the one and only convention I attend to actually meet some of my film favorites. They never fail to deliver, and this time was no exception. We’d stopped off and bullshitted with Ruby LaRocca for a few minutes, in which time she’d told us about a very entertaining Q & A session involving Mr. Van Bebber…so far, everything I’d thought to be true was sounding so. We meandered around for a bit and picked up some odds and ends until finally, there he was. You know how you concoct a hero to be this 12 foot tall, bronzed god who’s hair waves in the wind as if it were amber waves of grain? Well, he fit that description…at least, it felt like he did at that moment. He was like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page rolled into one rock n’ roll, dragon slayin’, maiden quenchin’ badass…or at least that’s how it felt. He was wearing a sleeveless flannel shirt, had perfect hair, and the single most righteous handlebar moustache ever grown. He was what men wanted to be…or at least that’s what I saw.
Jeb and I approached him with a fair amount of trepidation. What if he told me to fuck off? What if he ignored my questions? This is one of the people I’ve wanted to meet. I feel like I do a pretty good job of not getting star struck, but he’s on that short list (along with John Waters, Cal Ripken Jr., Gaspar Noe, Prince, and Lemmy). It was a big deal to me. Based on my recollection, this is how that conversation went down:
Me: “Hey man-I’m a huge fan of yours. I came this weekend just to get the opportunity to meet you.”
JVB: “Oh, man…that’s really fuckin’ cool to hear.” (this was followed by a hearty handshake and a hug! A hug!!)
This lead to a nice conversation discussing his travel, his Q & A, some other music/film-related discussion…then this happened:
Me: “So Jim, I have this website and I-well, we (nodding to Jeb)-we’d really love to be able to interview you for the website. I really think the readers would love it and I know I would.”
JVB: (with the same pleasant smile he’s had on his face the entire conversation)”…No, no man. I don’t think so”.
At this point Jeb and I are either going to poop on the floor or start break dancing. Either way, something had to break this uncomfortable tension. Mr. Van Bebber decided to continue:
JVB: “Don’t think I wouldn’t love to do it, man. I just…I’ve been workin’ on this movie for 10 years, ya know? It’s a film on Al Capone, and I’d really love to complete that before I start doing interviews. If I did one right now, it’d end up being all about my past films and…I just don’t wanna talk about them again right now.”
Okay, so that all makes total sense. It really did. But, if you could’ve been there to see how the pauses in phrasing went down, you would’ve been as equally tense as we were in that very moment. Here I am, finally meeting someone I’ve longed to meet. I HAVE the means to not only interview him, but I can put it out there for the public to read…and he turns me down. I wasn’t hurt by this, but I was taken aback. I was turned down. It was quite humbling because I assumed I had this one locked down. But once again, this speaks to the type of person Jim Van Bebber is. Very rarely do you encounter a filmmaker who turns down an interview. Not because they’re egomaniacs-because these guys who are churning out their OWN stuff in the indie market want the opportunity to put there film’s name out there. He knew where he was as an artist and knew where his head was at. The whole experience became another piece of his mythos. It made him every bit the renegade, uninterested in talking about the past. He was rooted in the now.
AND THE MYTH CARRIES ON…
The long strange trip of Jim Van Bebber’s legacy is one I’ve not had the opportunity to fully qualify as truth. My fascination with his films has lead to some incredible conversations with other like-minded people. Not unlike the metal community and their fascination with King Diamond, fans of Van Bebber’s speak of him in godlike terms. He’s a one of a kind. Movies like his aren’t coming around all the time. In fact, it’s that very hopeful style that has helped form this website. I wanted to start The Blood Sprayer because of people like Jim Van Bebber. I knew how strongly I felt about his movies and I was certain their were other people out there that felt the same way. This fearless invigorating way that he’s attacked his craft is nothing short of extraordinary. Not once has Mr. Van Bebber concerned himself with the industry’s status quo. He’s carved out powerful films by tackling topics in whichever way he sees fit. This is what puts his work a cut above so many others. Call this all an obsession…hell, call it whatever you’d like, but the fact is this: A filmmaker doesn’t get a cult status without first having done something mind-blowing. His work has blown plenty of minds (not just mine) and will continue to do so as other weirdos (not unlike myself) discover his work.
Amidst all this, I hope you see that I speak of the man and myth that is Jim Van Bebber, in total reverence. He’s become a favorite subject of mine simply by facing down the storm and being nothing more than who he is. Love or hate him, love or hate his movies, there’s no looking past his ability to be a provocateur. These are the type of people that keep us on our toes, keep us guessing. If you’ve been able to sift through my disjointed drunk-like storytelling, you can see that I adore this man’s movies and I want the world to love them too. So, please join me in raising a glass to a man who stands 1o stories high and strikes fear into the hearts of the boring-I honor you and your work, Jim Van Bebber! Bring us more movies…
Update: As this article was being prepared, The Blood Sprayer discovered that a documentary on Jim Van Bebber is in the works. Filmmaker Victor Bonacore was 2 months away from completion on said film. In the coming months, we will be featuring updates on this doc, as well as, an in-depth interview with Bonacore who can hopefully confirm or deny some of the manic urban tales about Van Bebber. Not unlike Van Bebber’s work, Bonacore is doing this entire documentary completely independent. Below, you’ll be able to view the trailer. Please, please take a look and keep your eyes peeled for more…
Tags: Anton LaVey, Bloodbath, Combat Shock, Courtney Wyant, cult, Deadbeat at Dawn, DIY, exploitation, fascination, Gaspar Noe, Horror, indie film, Jeremiah Genson, Jim Van Bebber, John Waters, King Diamond, kung fu, Lemmy, obsession, Pantera, ruby larocca, Satan, Satan's Little Helper, Texas, The Blood Sprayer, The Manson Family, Victor Bonacore