Judge Maurice Cobbs really wants a giant portrait of Richard Nixon for his courtroom.
Cheerleader. Prom Queen. Manson Girl.
After World War II, America went a little crazy. Okay, a lot crazy. And you know, that's one of the things I liked about Manson: My Name Is Evil. This film is a great showcase of the dueling insanaties of the era, two diametrically-opposed brands of psychotic American life: The more overt lunacy of the counter-culture movement, brought to its logical extreme in the form of the Manson Family's brutal murder spree, and the increasingly sinister corruption of traditional American values in the too-tighly wound mainstream; exacerbated by the country's involvement in Vietnam, eventually taking form as the My Lai Massacre.
So, that's the backdrop this cockamamie film is set against, and that's the world the two main characters have grown up in. Leslie (Kristen Hager, Valemont), the sweet cheerleader with the girl-next-door looks, comes from a history that involves personal trauma, drugs, abortion, and a broken home. Fresh-faced straight-arrow Perry (Gregory Smith, Small Soldiers) is the kind of upright Christian square who does all that is asked of him by God, Dad, and Country with the same earnestness and slightly goofy smile. Their two worlds collide, when Perry is summoned to serve on the jury during the murder trail of Charles Manson (Ryan Robbins, Sanctuary) and his "family."
As the film goes to great lengths to point out, there are a number of disturbing paralells between Perry and Leslie's experience, and though they exist on opposite sides of the cultural divide, Perry finds himself intrigued by Leslie in unusual ways. Certainly, the libertine murderess stands in sharp contrast to his blonde, button-downed, bright-eyed, ponytailed, Jesus-obsessed fiancee Dorothy (Kristin Adams, Where the Truth Lies), offering a glimpse of a world vastly different from the one inhabited by his smugly bigoted and hawkish father. Or does she? Opinions may vary. Though her fate is to be determined in a courtroom dominated on one end by a larger-than-life portrait of Richard Nixon and a larger-than-life American flag on the other, in the end, Perry's judgment of Leslie will also serve as a judgment on himself—and of society at large.
The themes of religious and sexual fervor are what binds the film, as Perry's story weaves, twists, and blends into Leslie's, until one can't help but wonder which depiction of zealotry is the more twisted. It should be noted that subtlety is not one of the film's strong points, drawing its parallells in an extremely heavy-handed and obvious manner. That said, I must give My Name is Evil credit for not focusing its time and energy on Charles Manson, who is portrayed not as some diabolical cult arch-mastermind, but more as the self-aggrandizing hippie lunatic he was. As such, it's easier to understand Manson as not only being the inevitable product of a post World War II government and religion, but also a fun-house mirror reflection of them. Hokey, colorful sets, largely inhabited by cardboard-cutout characters are given depth by the vigorous use of archival and stock footage. The generous application of a decidedly camp sensibility adds to the general carnival atmosphere, and makes for a stylish satire, even if it's not quite as effective as it could have been. Nevertheless, pitch-perfect performances by the two leads keep this movie from collapsing under the weight of it's own eccentricities.
Manson: My Name Is Evil is a good film on a number of levels, but suffers from an awful title. Its orginal Canadian release title was Leslie, My Name Is Evil; in the UK, the film is known simply as Manson Girl. I think the US release places too much emphasis on Manson—he is, after all, much more of a secondary character in this film. Even the DVD's cover, an extreme close-up of a wild-eyed Manson, seems to be promising that the film is something it's really not. This may be a great marketing gimmick, but I can't help feel that some people might feel like victims of the ol' bait-n-switch.
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