Little old Charles Manson. Has the idea of ultimate evil ever had a more underwhelming personification? Oh sure, the guy is nuts. Batshit. Playing in his own piss perverted. But is he really all that corrupt and wicked? Couldn't a better argument be made for someone like John Wayne Gacy, working out all his latent homosexual issues via the ritualistic rape and slaughter of teenage boys? Maybe Ted Bundy's brazen intellectualism, rationalizing that he was smarter than and even above the law, signified a more heinous Hellspawn. For all we know, Manson never dined on his victims like Eddie Gein or kept his captives with holes drilled in their head for sick same sex games like Jeffrey Dahmer. So why is Manson always numero uno on the Antichrist hit parade? What is Manson's real claim to criminal fame other than name checking the formidable Fab Four?
Perhaps it's what he seems to represent. Manson can best be described as putting a deadly face on the freewheeling 60s, and killing the counter culture dream once and for all with his sex and death dynamic. More than any other entity, radical or rebellious, Charlie boy gave the establishment with all its hippy-hating hypocrites a scapegoat, grounds to declare the battle for the Nation's conscience over and done with. Manson was the face of the youth movement as many considered it to be; a dope smoking, free love lunatic asylum with a secret inherent desire to go on a little social slaughtering spree. This diminutive demagogue, raised by the State and its penal system, was the craven, carnivorous Hitler helming his own legion of dirt brown shirts in an all out assault on the system. It was Manson's hope that the deeds of his "Family" would bring about a race war of Armageddon like proportions. But all that really resulted was an inflated ego, another addition in the canon of "trials of the century" and a best selling book - Helter Skelter - by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.
Indie filmmaker Jim VanBebber wants to change all that. With his 15 years in the making epic The Manson Family, he hopes to peal off the highly publicized face of Charlie and his children and paint a portrait, in the true vivid colors of who they really are: cold blooded, sadistic killers. He refuses to shy away from any element of the story, no matter how sensational or surreal and never excuses the horrible actions of his appalling anti-heroes. Though not everything about his approach works, VanBebber has fashioned a true labor of love into one of the most haunting and harrowing films ever created. While it won't please everyone, The Manson Family feels more like the real story behind the Tate-LaBianca murders than any previous incarnation of this mythic crime.
It is 1996. TV personality Jim Wilson is putting the finishing touches on a documentary special about The Manson Family. He hopes to remove the focus from Charlie once and for all, who he considers to be the fraudulently, media-supported reason for the Tate-LaBianca crimes. Instead, Wilson wants to lay the blame at the feet of the murderous clan of killers known as the Family, and let the real evil, the one's who actually wielded the knives and fired the guns, to speak for themselves. He wants to de-glamorize the entire subject, to show the truth, or lack thereof, within their wildly divergent accounts. As he views the footage, we get a chance to see the Family members, as they look today, recounting their individual versions of what happened during that notorious summer leading up to the murders. We also see flashbacks of what really happened, versions either accurately reflecting or wildly contradicting what we are told. And all the while, as the footage unfolds and the testimony is given, a band of angry youths prepare to kill the object of their hatred. They don't want Manson or his family's name smeared for the sake of some tabloid tale. And they are willing to murder the man responsible for such slander– none other than Jim Wilson himself.
Audacious, inspired and overdosing on the scurrilous and the sleazy, Jim VanBebber's The Manson Family is one of the most remarkable films ever made about Charlie and his criminal clan. Its flaws are as obvious as the gore that flows from the victims' bodies, and the moments of genuine revulsion are equally effusive. In his attempt to recreate the defining moment of the 1960s – the exact point in time when peace and love turned to piss and shit – VanBebber has struck upon a uniquely individualistic ideal. Instead of making that mad monk messiah the center of his story, or focus on a CSI style crime scene investigation and trial, the filmmaker strives to capture the essence of the Manson movement. He wants to get inside the head of the suggestible souls who came under the influence of the decade's desire for unbridled freedom.
And while the movie he made does brilliantly reflect the times and temperament, it does occasionally sidestep the bigger issues. There is much more social meaning to what the Manson Family did those fateful nights in 1969 than, perhaps, VanBebber is willing to acknowledge. Instead, we get lots of sex and drugs and repugnance, all channeled through a faux-documentary presentation, that's effective, but sometimes elusive.
Indeed, one of The Manson Family's most troubling aspects is the modern footage that tries to act as a counterpoint, and craven Greek chorus, to the Family's felonious fever dreams. As a group of gloomy Goth throwbacks prepare to assassinate a television host, going through the preparation for their murderous modus operandi, we see the America's Most Wanted style star looking over his latest project – a film on the family itself, 25 years later. This prosaic personality, named Jack Wilson in the film, wants to ignore the mad as a hatter Manson for a more pointed look at the pawns in his game of life and death – the individual family members who carried out the killings.
So instead of getting deep into Charlie's cracked skull, we see modern mock interview footage of the actors playing Tex, Leslie, Sadie, Clem, Bobby, Linda and Patty. The film then flashes backs to illustrations of their anecdote, sometime replicating, at other times contradicting, their casual confessions. Mix in the unnatural born killers preparing for their concurrent crime spree, and things can get a little confusing.
But one of VanBebber's gifts is his ability to successfully juggle this complicated narrative, even if each and every strand isn't totally worth the effort. Using a 1970s exploitation ideal for this flashback filming, the main part of the Mason Family looks like actual documentary clips of Spahn ranch in freefall. With the use of post-production techniques to age and scratch the film, along with a 16mm shooting style, the hand held, flat lighting legacy of a myriad of sordid drive-in films is perfectly captured on the Manson movie canvas. There are times when you actually feel like you're watching a Texas Chainsaw Massacre take on the Tate-LaBianca murders. The modern sequences, however, stink of Oliver Stone and John McNaughton, recalling the most artificial aspects of NBK or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. And interlaced is all manner of real and fake archival material, each one adding a layer to the intricate and gripping story VanBebber wants to tell.
By removing the focus from Charlie, by doing away with his self-righteous rants and bugf*ck bravado, we actually learn a great deal about the genuine family dynamic. While they are often portrayed as victims of Manson's mind games, or lost and lonely hippies who took a wrong turn in the California desert and ended up as a madman's minions, we see the psychosis fester and grow inside each of our crazed clan members, and understand all too well why they would lash out at the Establishment in the horrible, bloody way that they did. While the rationale for why those brutal crimes were committed sounds a little suspect (so did Bugliosi's Beatle based prosecution, for that matter), trying to give Bobby BeauSoleil a post-incarceration alibi for a previous killing seems sane once you learn the logic skill possessed by many of the Family members.
Indeed, we discover that, to many, Bobby and Tex Watson were almost equals to Charlie, figures of massive male dominance in a mostly subservient setting (VanBebber claims to have meticulously researched his film, so we have no real reason to deny his claims). We see Bobby and Tex take the lead in several situations, doing the outspoken evil that many accuse Manson of masterminding. This is not meant to excuse the "leader". No, instead, it is to show how everyone, from the unfortunate lookout to the person plunging the knife deep into Jay Sebring's chest was all part of a similar, antisocial pattern.
Of course, by taking the film away from the aftermath and trial, we are saved a lot of the goofy grandstanding that went on in court, as well as surrounding it outside. While VanBebber does provide glimpses of the surreal circus atmosphere - the haunting look of the bald, witch-like Manson girls being lead before the media, the followers filling the sidewalks, freshly carved 'Xs' in their still bleeding foreheads – this is not a movie ready to make the clear connections between Charlie and the decline of Western civilization. While it's obvious from a couple of the sequences (the TV host, Jack Wilson, even calls the killings the 'death of the 60s') that VanBebber wants to draw a link between The Manson Family mindset and the modern spree-killing conceits of disconnected and disenfranchised youth, the distinctions are greater than the correlations. Actually, The Manson Family makes a case that, under any "gang" like circumstances, a group will turn to crime as a means of finding a place within the communal mystique. One of the reasons why the modern material fails to fully succeed is that it offers up no real reference point. A viewer could equally connect the coming crime with the Reverend Jim Jones, as his final speech to his Kool-Aid drinking cult at Jonestown is played over the scene of the kids ritualizing their anger.
When it stays in its main story, however, The Manson Family is incredibly absorbing. It is hard to tell just how much of this movie is real, and how much has been "fictionalized" to fulfill some manner of dramatic conceit. Those of us who lived through the Manson mania of the late 60s/early 70s will see some familiar aspects of the Family's free love and felony mannerisms. But we get additional pieces of a very prurient puzzle, as well as a firmer understanding of the interplay and pecking order between the acid-soaked personalities within the main clan core. VanBebber's debt to the exploitation of the past really amplifies the aggressive nature of the narrative, lulling us into a decidedly skuzzy state of awareness before the massive, mean-spirited bloodletting begins. Indeed, the entire 105 minute film does feel like a subtle, ever-shifting set of connections for the final slaughter setpiece. By laying every piece of his psychological puzzle out for everyone to see, the crimes become lamentably inevitable, the venting of a rage than none of the Family can quite comprehend. VanBebber is smart not to focus on the fame or the name of the victims – it would add a tabloid level of gratuitousness that we aren't ready to revel in.
No, the director just presents us with the parameters, and then unleashes the dogs of gore. This is one disturbingly graphic motion picture. About the only atrocity we DON'T witness is the cruel ersatz Caesarian the killers performed on Sharon Tate's unborn baby. But all the other horrible highlights are here in grue soaked crimson – the multiple stabs wounds, the ghastly mutilation of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, the fork sticking out of the latter's stomach, the skull crushing cruelty that befell Voytek Frykowski. Instead of inferring the slaughter, VanBebber does what no other Manson movie has had the balls to attempt – it actually wallows in the extreme nastiness, to make you feel it and sense it. Part of this is for publicity, or course. Every commercial release, no matter how independent, needs a hook, and horror fans definitely love their trips into the gorezone. But you can also envision a deeper message here – a reminder that no matter how far off in the past these crimes appear to be, and no matter the amount of ridiculous rehabilitation has occurred on behalf of the killers, these were still some of the most brutal, most ungodly and sickening butcheries ever to occur. They should never be forgotten, and after seeing them dramatized in this film, they won't be.
Many, however, may still mistake The Manson Family as some manner of perverse love letter to the subject of its sensationalism. And indeed, Charlie does come off as less of a demon (Satanic dream sequence excluded) and more like a powerful, yet pathetic presence. But there are no excuses in this film, no arguments pro or preferring a specific interpretation of what actually happened more than three decades ago. What The Manson Family wants to do, and does so expertly, is to remind us of the era and environment in which these heinous acts were hatched. It tries to capture a singular point in time, the exact instance when the summer of love stop simmering and boiled over into the alienation and anger it was truly fostering. The Establishment was fighting back as hard as it could, trying to keep the counterculture from becoming populist, and the aggression finally overwhelmed the optimism of the free loving youth. Manson and his bogus brood were not the cause of the corruption of such sentimental ideals. They were a symptom of a much bigger problem within the American mindset. The Manson Family doesn't fully deal with this dynamic, but it doesn't dismiss it either. While far from perfect, this is an important look at one of the most dreadful sides of the 1960s. It is a truly brilliant work.
While it is hard to champion a 1.33:1 full frame transfer filled with scratches, editing flaws and age defects, it is easy to celebrate what The Manson Family is trying to do. Indeed, all of these print issues exist on PURPOSE, as part of director Jim VanBebber's artistic ideals. Hoping to capture the archival nature of the past as well as keeping within the filmmaking style of the actual era (lots of wide angle lenses, fish eye fun and erratic cutting) the look of The Manson Family is a triumph of technique. VanBebber understands the power of the past and references several of his favorite auteurs with his shot selection and compositions. The modern footage is pristine and very evocative, melding a music video style (VanBebber did do the occasional musical short during his career) with normal, by the book nuances. While some may argue against a full screen image, it is hard to envision The Manson Family any other way. It is supposed to be suggestive of a bygone cinematic epoch, and it does so expertly.
One of the best aspects of The Manson Family is the carefully crafted, meticulously realized Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that accompanies the film (there is also a decent, far more direct Dolby Digital Stereo mix as well). Highly atmospheric and reminiscent of the work Trent Reznor did for Oliver Stone on NBK, this is a mosaic of murderous mania shaped and channeled in a way that literally haunts your home theater system. Dogs bark off in the distance. Eerie voices whisper their despair from between the speakers. The sounds of death and destruction reverberate off the walls and, all the while, the dialogue stays up front and crystal clear. On par with any of the big budget, Hollywood sound editing jobs you hear in mainstream movies, this is a fabulous auditory experience and well worth paying attention to. The aural aspects of The Manson Family truly enhance the cinematic experience and fuel the fatalistic atmosphere of the film.
Thanks to Dark Sky Films and MPI, not only does The Manson Family have a fabulous audio and video presentation, but the 2 disc DVD set itself is packed with three substantial supplements that really add some context to this amazing motion picture. Along with the trailers and still galleries found on Disc 1, Disc 2 contains information about the production, the independent film scene, and Charles Manson himself. Indeed, two of these pieces are like films themselves. "The VanBebber Family" is a 78-minute documentary that covers the entire twisted journey of bringing this Manson movie to the screen. Everyone is here except Marcello Games, who played Charlie in the film (his absence from the interview footage is never fully explained) and they all have their say in what became a bizarre journey into the heart of fringe filmmaking darkness. VanBebber, older but no less enigmatic, comes across as an inspired enigma, a man driven by a vision that he found increasingly difficult to remove from his real life. The actors all express their pleasure as well as the painful memories of working untold hours for no pay, and the crew fills us in on many of the more important "Making-Of" moments.
Perhaps the most important issue addressed here however, is the inclusion of the modern footage, and the alienated youth assassin subplot. VanBebber makes a very clear connection (in a manner more cogent than he does in the film proper) for why this material HAD to be included, and provides a link between Manson, this movie and his 1994 shocker My Sweet Satan. While he doesn't come right out and say it, VanBebber - who does look like an exact replica of Marilyn Manson in the Satan scenes - is trying to make a linear link from Charlie to Marilyn, from the horrible crimes to the glorification of a grotesque, misguided human being. Unfortunately, a lot of what he does in The Manson Family isn't as rational as the arguments he makes here. While it's about 10 minutes too long, "The VanBebber Family" is still one of the most insightful, profound looks at a movie in full manic maelstrom mode ever created. It's a brilliant dissertation on the art of the motion picture.
Equally compelling for different reasons is "In the Belly of the Beast". It showcases the 1997 FanTasia Film Festival in Montreal. Looking at several different movies with names like A Gun for Jennifer, Dust Devil and Aftermath, this is a journey into the Hell that is guerilla filmmaking. VanBebber and his movie are part of the mix (it is shown as "a work in progress" under the title Charlie's Family) and it's interesting to hear how everyone has the same sad story about financing and failure. Every creative person here has their own personal horror tale about illegal activities, the involvement of lawyers, and the confiscation of prints. In the end, we learn that as long as an audience – any audience, sees their film – then it will all be worth it for these obsessed movie mavens.
It's not all whitewash and wish fulfillment however. We hear from a couple of critics who provide the prospective that these close-knit insular individuals lack. They point out that the reason some of these films remain unreleased is because, frankly, they are unreleaseable in their current state. From horrible subject matter (Aftermath's nasty necrophilia) to unusable prints (Dust Devil only exists in a salvaged copy from another source) there is proof, beyond the supposed persecution by the mainstream, why these movies aren't more accepted. This back and forth is what makes "In the Belly of the Beast" wildly enjoyable and informative.
Finally, the actual Manson man gets to hang himself proper with a 10-minute collection of interview clips, culled from a long-form documentary. Looking old and scrappy, with just the barest amount of that trademarked cherubic glint in his eyes, he comes across as a sad, insane artifact. Much of what he says makes little or no sense, and he seems ready to lash out at the imaginary enemies he sees around him, but he is fascinating nonetheless. It kind of puts the entire movie into perspective actually. Had The Manson Family been 105 minutes of this rambling fool, it would have been intolerable. Getting to hear the psycho-babbler speak for himself however shows that VanBebber made the right decision in his film's focus.
Here's a prediction about The Manson Family. Give it about ten years. Let it be digested and dissected by those who matter most: the ardent fans and the savvy outsider cinema aficionados. Let the story of its making seep into legend and just give the film a chance to really be understood and appreciated. Come back to it a decade later and see if revisionist history hasn't christened it one of the greatest horror films of all time, right up there with other independent entities like Chainsaw or Henry. That's the way it works in the world of foolhardy, daring moviemaking. The instant rewards are never bountiful or universal, but time and attention have a way of providing perspective where none is presently available or found.
Certainly The Manson Family is not a masterpiece. But neither was The Evil Dead or Last House on the Left when they first arrived on the scene. Like any confrontational piece of art, such shock value must have a chance to wear off and wane before a true appreciation can occur. Though it took nearly two decades to complete, this is one of the most stark and original looks at the tainted tone poem that was the life of one Charles Manson and his family of free-spirited freaks. You may not always find it aesthetically agreeable, but you can't deny its factual and filmic power. This is one of the best true crime films ever made...and if you don't think so now, just wait. Eventually, you'll understand why.
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