History Channel // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 17th, 2009
"Look out -- helter skelter!"
Following Voltaire, I would happily argue that if Charles Manson did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. He's the picture-perfect twentieth century American psychopath: charismatic, handsome, intelligent, and a "bad boy." Much like Jack the Ripper's mad spree in London came at the height of Victorian hubris exposing the dark underbelly of colonialism, industrialization, and the class system, Manson's perpetration of the Tate/LaBianca murders at the height of hippie hubris exposed the violence and exploitation lurking under the seemingly placid veneer of "free love" ideology. To this day the name Charles Manson is still used to conjure up a vision of the truly scary social deviant, long after the names of the equally weird have disappeared into relative obscurity (like Ed Gein). I wouldn't be shocked if in a century or two, Charles Manson, like Vlad Tepes, has morphed into a folk-tale monster. So, it's no surprise that there's a cottage industry supplying the curious with information about the Manson murders and their aftermath. Books, television shows, and adaptations have all been made of the wild-haired guru's exploits. Which brings us to Manson, a new documentary from the History Chanel which attempts to give us something no other documentary, in print or on film, has given us before: the perspective of getaway driver Linda Kasabian. Although it's a good hook, this documentary leaves me feeling like we know all we're ever going to know about Manson and his cult, and that some aspects of those dreadful days will forever be shrouded in mystery.
For those who need the Cliffs Notes version: back in 1969, Charles Manson, a failed musician and former juvenile delinquent, had a commune he dubbed his "family" on a ranch a few miles outside of L.A. Mr. Manson was convinced that the blacks were going to rise in what he called "Helter Skelter" (after the Beatles song) and overthrow the whites. Eventually, however, the blacks would be unable to lead, requiring some help from the surviving whites. Charlie hoped to be one of those survivors. He preached the coming of Helter Skelter to anyone who would listen, but when it didn't come Charlie got a little bit anxious and decided to kick things off himself. He primed his "family" with drugs and psychological abuse to do his bidding and set them to the task of murdering victims with the intent of getting blacks blamed for the acts. This would lead the blacks to rise up, thus inciting Helter Skelter. His family went on a spree that started at the end of July, and culminated in the infamous Tate/LaBianca murders. Although there's no evidence that Manson physically killed anyone, he and most of his family were sentenced to death or life in prison. After capital punishment was temporarily unconstitutional, the death sentences were commuted to life in prison. Manson is still incarcerated in California.
The big problem with Manson is that it doesn't offer much more information than that paragraph up there does, which is all most people know about Manson in the first place. It also all but stops at the Tate/LaBianca murders, giving only the most cursory account of the capture, trial, and cultural aftershocks. Beyond the lack of new information, the documentary also fails to give the old information in a compelling form. Combining interviews with three principals in the case with reenactments, Manson dubs itself a "documentary-drama," but it just doesn't work. Here's how it breaks down:
* Interviews. The primary interviewee, and the reason most people are going to pick up this documentary, is Linda Kasabian, the member of the family who turned state's evidence and wasn't prosecuted. She tells her story, but it's not particularly compelling because we already know most of the details from the trial and subsequent publicity. Sure, she tells how she fell in with Manson, but that's not particularly interesting. Her "insights" into Manson's character, and her description of the goings on at the ranch echo all the previous testimony we have, making her appearance here redundant. For another perspective on the family we have Catherine Share, a.k.a. "Gypsy," who was at the ranch the same time as Kasabian. She too repeats the same platitudes about Manson's charm and eventual turn to violence. The most compelling part of the interviews with these women is how creepy they look when they talk about Manson. They still use reverential tones, and smile like teenagers in love when they recall some of the events at the ranch. I'm not saying they have to remember the whole period with the horror, but sometimes it very much feels like they're still in Manson's thrall. Sharon Tate's sister also makes an occasional appearance, but she's sorely underutilized, really only there to be outraged or upset at the appropriate moments. Finally, we get footage of lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the man who literally wrote the book on Manson, appropriately title Helter Skelter. He's like an aging burlesque dancer trotting onstage to give the weary audience yet another show. He's obviously repeating information he's been schlepping across the country for three decades now. Because his views have become orthodoxy thanks to his book, his presence here is entirely superfluous.
* The other half of this documentary is reenactments of the various activities of the family on the ranch and during the murders. These are just painfully bad. The acting is fine, but the narrative setup is atrocious and they're so completely unnecessary it's hard to watch them. They don't give us any insights into what happened, or how things happened. They're really an excuse for an actor with a cool beard to act crazy. The less said about these, the better.
I wish I could at least say something nice about the DVD, but it's a non-anamorphic transfer that looks fine except for the fact that it's not anamorphic. The audio is clean and okay, but the lack of subtitles is disappointing. There are also no extras whatsoever.
This documentary should really be called Linda Kasabian's Experiences with the Manson Family, since it only covers a brief part of either of their stories. With a few more perspectives (and an attempt to cover more of Manson's life post-trial), this could have been a decent documentary, even with the horrible reenactments. Instead, it will likely leave Manson neophytes with gaps in their knowledge, and diehard Mansonites will be bored by the repetition of the same old information and horrible attempts at recreating the scenes. The more conspiracy minded viewers might want to pick up the film just because it's coming out in the same month as the CD reissues of the Beatles catalog, something I'm sure ol' Charlie appreciates.
Guilty of making one of the most interesting mass murders in American history boring.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated