MPI // 2003 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 12th, 2005
You've seen the story through the eyes of the law. Now see it through the eyes of the Manson Family.
Did we really need another movie about Charles Manson, especially one made by an independent filmmaker from Dayton, Ohio?
1996: Television journalist Jack Wilson (Dayton news anchor, Carl Day) prepares an investigative piece looking back on the Manson family and the string of murders they committed. Unknown to him, a quartet of disaffected Goths -- enamored with Charles Manson's rejection of straight society -- is angered by what they consider the newsman's exploitation of Manson's name and the sensationalizing of the crimes. Locked away in a dark and grungy basement, they plan retribution.
1969: Ex-con Charles Manson (Marcelo Games) and his "family" of countercultural youths hole up on the Spahn ranch, consuming mass quantities of drugs, indulging in orgies, and slipping into an increasingly bizarre groupthink. Their first acts against straight society are relatively harmless "creepy crawls," late night break-ins that involve petty theft or simply rearranging the houses' furniture as a lark. But when Manson is rejected by the music industry, his anti-establishment, steam-of-consciousness philosophizing becomes increasingly apocalyptic. A botched drug deal and Charlie's belief that dealer Gary Hinman (Kevin Curren) is sitting on a small fortune leads to Hinman's murder by family members Bobby Beausoleil (Jim VanBebber, My Sweet Satan) and Susan "Sexy Sadie" Atkins (Maureen Allisse, Road Kill: The Last Days of John Martin). When Beausoleil is nabbed by cops, Manson orders Tex Watson (Marc Pitman, Deadbeat at Dawn), Patricia Krenwinkel (Leslie Orr, The Dream Catcher), and Leslie Van Houten (Amy Yates) to carry out grizzly copycat murders in the hopes that they will fool cops into believing Beausoleil is the wrong man.
On its face, the idea of combining the true story of the Manson murders with exploitation flick style sounds tacky to the extreme, but writer-director-actor Jim VanBebber has achieved something extraordinary. The gore-for-gore's-sake excesses of exploitation become, in VanBebber's hands, the most emotionally compelling depiction of the Manson murders ever committed to film. The Hinman murder is a horror show of suffering, but it's a mere warm-up to the more famous Tate and LaBianca slayings to come. The full weight of the filmmakers' achievement doesn't settle on the viewer until one watches Sharon Tate watching Jay Sebring mercilessly stabbed to death by Tex Watson. It's not the graphic detail of the murder that gets you, but knowing these events actually happened, and that Tate's witnessing Sebring's death means she must have known what was to come for herself and her unborn child.
The acid trips and free love romps that make up the first two-thirds of the film feel like pure groovy-nudie exploitation, a wonderland of amateur acting and faux '70s film technique, but they're the calm before the storm. When the killings explode onscreen, the picture's power becomes evident. The violence is extended and unrelenting, but meticulously recreated from eye-witness accounts, autopsy reports, and court documents. The slaying of Sebring is followed by the harrowing murder of Abigail Folger, the slitting of her throat and her long, bloody, dazed stagger across the Polansky lawn before collapsing. The LaBianca murders are filled with similarly wrenching detail: Rosemary panics hearing her husband stabbed in the next room, and Van Houten later cackles heartlessly while poking a knife into the dying woman's buttocks. By the end of the film, one feels wrung out and exhausted. The Manson Family is blood-soaked exploitation with the power to raise gooseflesh and maybe even tears.
VanBebber shaped The Manson Family as a repudiation of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's best-selling Helter Skelter, a lengthy and detailed explication of the nightmare events in the Hollywood hills that closed out the 1960s, and the high-profile trial that opened the '70s. The film rejects the book's convoluted construction of motive, as well as its sensationalist bent, which has made an icon of loony Manson and a not-so-small fortune for Bugliosi. The lasting importance of the Manson trial/media circus, after all, is that it established an important precedent for all future celebrity trials-of-the-century: the major players cashing in with book and movie deals. Bugliosi's version of events reads like '60s pop culture thrown into the whipsaw blender of Charlie Manson's quick but erratic mind: racial tension, Beatles albums, The Bible, anti-capitalism, hallucinogens, and flower-child free love create a potent cocktail that lulls a group of relatively normal, if disaffected, kids to depraved acts of murder under lifelong convict Manson's mesmeric leadership. It's a riveting tale, but one The Manson Family rejects.
While Bugliosi's book largely accepts the murderers' self-serving claims that they were manipulated into the crimes by Manson's messianic ravings, VanBebber takes all of that with a grain of salt, basing his version instead on the public statements of family member Bobby Beausoleil (where the medical examiner's report conflicts with Beausoleil's account of the Hinman murder, however, VanBebber sticks with the forensic evidence in his recreation). Beausoleil paints a much simpler and logical rationale for the Tate/LaBianca murders: Manson wanted to spring him from jail by fooling the cops into believing they'd arrested the wrong man. Either Beausoleil or Susan Atkins had written "Political Piggy" in Hinman's blood on the wall of his house, so Manson had Tex Watson scrawl "Pig" on the wall of the Polansky house and "Death to Pigs" on the LaBianca's refrigerator. The story isn't nearly as weird and mesmerizing as Bugliosi's tale of hippies run amok, but it makes a lot more sense, and its critique of a multi-million dollar media industry built on murder -- particularly the murder of attractive young women -- is resonant and relevant to life in a 21st-century America smitten with the OJ Simpson and Mark Peterson trials.
On a technical level, The Manson Family is a wonder of editing. The production was a scattershot affair spread over fifteen years as VanBebber slowly raised the money to complete it. Principle photography took place in fits and starts from 1988 to 1993, and left VanBebber and editor Michael Capone (No Joking) with an abundance of mismatched footage. Their final cut of the film is an essentially linear narrative built from perfect recreations of trippy, late '60s exploitation flick style à la Roger Corman's The Trip; faux interview footage of the various family members in prison years after the crimes; the aforementioned horrifying murder footage; and the narrative framing device of Jack Wilson and his encounter with Manson's gothic, modern-day worshipers. The visual aesthetics of each of these building blocks is spot-on, and the two men weave them together in an almost documentary style, the interview footage providing context, while the rest assaults the viewer viscerally and emotionally.
The exploitation footage comprised of the drug taking and naked romping that makes up the greater part of the first two-thirds of the picture is loaded with erratic zooms, low-angle shots of the flower-power family traipsing through grassy fields, lens flares caused by the sun, and psychedelic scene transitions right out of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The footage culminates in a red-filtered blood orgy featuring imagery of dog sacrifice and a crown-of-thorns-sporting Charlie tied to a cross -- just the sort of hyper-obvious, over-the-top visual symbolism one finds in those old pictures of the Corman school of filmmaking. It would be bad, bad filmmaking except it's abundantly clear that VanBebber's use of visuals is directed at evoking a time and place, not saying something heavy or arty. His technique is so studied it completely sells an Ohio field as the infamous Spahn ranch.
The interview footage is equally convincing. Shot on a variety of sources from video to film, VanBebber and Capone carefully damaged and color-timed the scenes to make them appear aged. The footage appears culled from a variety of decades, catching the fevered, fiery rhetoric of Watson, Krenwinkel, Atkins, and other family members during Manson's trial, as well as their more reflective and subdued demeanor years later.
The DVD's open matte, full screen transfer (the original ratio of the negative, though the film was probably matted during its few and scattered theatrical exhibitions) does a fine job of reproducing footage that is supposed to look old and worn. There are few noticeable transfer flaws -- edge enhancement is controlled, video artifacts are non-existent, and grain levels are appropriate to the sources. The low-budget picture, made by the seat of VanBebber's pants, looks excellent on DVD.
VanBebber and Capone's fine editing job is matched by a dynamic sound mix that makes full and subtle use of Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround's capabilities. Ambient space is carefully mixed and convincing, using the rear soundstage and front-to-back pans to full effect. The score -- a combination of original material by Skinny Puppy, and real recordings by Charles Manson -- is perfectly rendered.
Dark Sky Films has released The Manson Family on DVD in two forms: a barebones, single-disc, R-rated cut that runs 84 minutes, and the 95-minute, unrated, two-disc edition on review here. Presumably, the shorter cut removes some of the nudity and violence. Though I haven't screened the R-rated version, I feel reasonably safe in asserting that The Manson Family is one of those rare instances in which softening violent content would damage the picture's artistic power and validity. The Tate/LaBianca murders were a horrifying nightmare. Any film depiction of them that wasn't excruciatingly difficult to watch wouldn't be doing them justice.
In addition to the feature, Disc One of this Special Edition contains two relatively large photo galleries, and a couple trailers.
The supplements on Disc Two begin with The VanBebber Family, an in-depth documentary that reunites the cast and crew to talk about their experiences making the movie. The piece follows the general chronology of the production, and the contributors are refreshingly candid. The documentary runs 77 minutes in length and is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
In the Belly of the Beast is a 73-minute documentary about the 1997 Fant-Asia Film Festival in Montreal, at which a rough cut of The Manson Family (then titled Charlie's Family) was exhibited. Even unfinished, VanBebber's film seems to have been the stand-out of the festival, though fans of blood-and-guts cinema should enjoy segments about Karim Hussain's Subconscious Cruelty, and Nacho Cerdà's short film about necrophilia, Aftermath, among others.
Finally, there's a 10-minute interview with Charles Manson, chocked full of his standard pseudo-beat poet lunacy.
VanBebber's cast is comprised of amateur and semi-professional actors, so the line reads aren't always believable, but the look of the material and its visceral power goes a long way in overcoming any thespian shortcomings. The exception to this is the modern-day storyline. VanBebber came up with the idea while taking a break from his Manson film to shoot My Sweet Satan, a movie about the drug-and-doom Goth culture. The Jack Wilson storyline works well enough as a framing device, and it mostly succeeds in making an intellectual connection between the ennui and alienation from mainstream American culture that drove the Manson family and that experienced by today's youth. But the segments don't work emotionally because we feel no connection whatsoever to the characters. As a result, the subplot's violent climax feels like hollow, cheap exploitation, an anti-climax to the powerful murders presented only moments earlier. And the sub par acting becomes impossible to ignore.
In the end, the Jack Wilson subplot is a good idea whose poor execution and afterthought genesis make it little more than a distraction from the more compelling tale of Charlie and his gang of miscreants.
The Manson Family is exploitation-cum-art because Jim VanBebber had the good sense to focus gore cinema aesthetics on a true-to-life tale that itself has been exploited by the media for decades. Some critics have accused VanBebber of excusing Manson's crimes, but they miss the point. Rather than giving Charlie a pass, The Manson Family finally holds the other culprits to account, painting Watson and the other members of the family as the murderous thugs they are, instead of as misguided innocents manipulated by a mad genius.
Review content copyright © 2005 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Gallery
* Behind the Scenes Gallery
* The VanBebber Family Documentary
* In the Belly of the Beast Documentary
* Interview with Charles Manson