Though he's been locked up in prison for nearly 40 years, and hasn't been a part of the cultural landscape for at least that long, there is still an odd fascination with Charles Manson that is difficult to dissect. Some see him as the ultimate outsider, a man made and manipulated by the system that eventually caught and condemned him. Others seem drawn to his insane independence, a kind of cockeyed inspiration for playing by your own rules. There are those who will always be fascinated by his radical rebellious nature, and a few strangely sucked in by the charisma of his craziness. Still, it doesn't explain why musicians cover his crappy songs, or why filmmakers find his story so fascinating. LA punk scene fixture John Roecker is stuck somewhere in the middle. His first feature film, the oddball animated anarchy entitled Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is an obvious paean to our man Manson. But with its comedic carnality and factual fallacies, one has to argue if this is a movie about Charlie and his slaughter factory, or a chaotic comment on the allure of same.
It's several dozen years into the future. Earth is dead, scorched and parched by natural disaster. A nomadic entity, seeking sustenance for the day, comes across a copy of a book - Healter Skelter - and proceeds to thumb through it. Suddenly, we shift perspective, and we are inside an animated story, perhaps a retelling of the tome, or a mythical version of this murderous tale. As she is being interrogated by "the pigs", Susan Hatkins tells them about how she met Charlie Hanson, and how she became part of his family. When the clan learns that stuck-up starlet Sharon Hate is thinking of making a movie near their beloved be-in, Hanson grabs his copy of the Beetles White Album and starts to prophesize.
He determines that Hate must be killed, and so he gets Hatkins and a few other members of his blitzed out brood to drive into the Hollywood Hills and hack her to death. The murder inspires a local grocer to dump plans for building a series of shopping centers near the Hanson hovel. Instead, he will transform the arid area into a memorial parking lot for the late actress. This sends Hanson over the deep end once again, and suddenly our supermarket man is being filleted like a flounder. Tried and convicted for their crimes, Hanson and the family defend their choices, arguing that all they wanted to do was teach the Establishment how to Live Freaky! Die Freaky!
Hot on the filmic footsteps of Jim Van Bebber's groundbreaking The Manson Family comes the crazy clamation epic Live Freaky! Die Freaky! Not really a retelling of the entire Spahn ranch slaughter story, but a brutally funny bad taste comedy ala John Waters, director John Roecker has fashioned a loving homage to the Rankin-Bass menagerie of mannered marionettes filtered through a decidedly post modern view of fame and feloniousness. Call it The Nightmare Before Woodstock or the Mad Manson Party, but there is something more sinister at foot here. Roecker rips out the guts of the original slaughter saga and turns it into a scathing satire of cults and the cult of personality. Roecker isn't out to retell the truth about the Tate/LaBianca killings. Instead, he wants to put some perspective into the whole sad, sordid story. He finds blame all around, and fashions his fictional narrative into a laugh out loud exercise in gross-out extremes. Naturally, the names have been changed to protect...the innocent? That is why names don't quite match, why Manson is 'Hanson' and why Tate is 'Hate'. This is also why drugs take second place to sex and the scatological. This is not history as passed through a punk perspective (though many notable hard rock musicians make their mark here) - this is a new millennium's milking of the unofficial end of the peace generation for all it's twisted, wanton worth.
You realize right away that Roecker is having us off. While she confesses her sins to a pair of porcine accusers, Hadie Mae Sutz, a.k.a. Suzanne Hatkins mixes her metaphors and memoirs, creating a Charlie Hanson that is more an LSD trip inspired sexual tryst rather than a ranting, raving father figure. After some hilarious puppet porn (lots of plasticine penetration here for all you doll diddlers) and a cheesy character song (don't forget - this Manson mania is a musical!) the basics of the story are set up. Charlie is obsessed with sex, and in love with the power he has over his people. When he learns of the possible take-over of his desert home, he hits play on his portable record player, channels the White Album and devises his death plan. The murders are carried out like a standard slasher movie spoof, none of the real elements (like the hangings and shootings) provided as part of the plot. Indeed, Roecker keeps it simple so as to work through the other, more important issues he has with the story. In fact, you can tell where his passions lie by what sections take up the most screen time.
Without a doubt, the most amazing moments in Live Freaky! Die Freaky! come when Hate and her coked-up sex party are slaughtered by Hanson's killer brood. Before the slayers enter however, we get an extended sequence where our spoiled rotten actress (expertly voiced by that Heffalump Hellion Kelly Osbourne) goes on a risqué rant about her sad and sorry love life. She dismisses her "famous director husband" as far too interested in underage girls. She chides her homosexual hairdresser pal Hay for not being able to service her feminine needs, and whines as her European trash tart friend (with the husky tones of one Asia Argento) argues about the value of available men. It's a startling, scandalous and silly scene, uproarious in the heights of foulness it will felch in order to get a laugh. A similar gaggle of gross out gags occurs when we meet the stand-ins for the LaBiancas. Again, Roecker uses toilet humor and sex jokes to de-mystify the murders. And since we are seeing puppets perform these brutal acts of insanity, the sinister undercurrent is removed, replaced by a wonderfully wicked sense of absurdity that helps drive the narrative.
Sadly, not all of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! runs on this ribald path. There are times when Roecker lets the lead get away from him, turning Hanson/Manson away from the farcical facets of the story and back toward the warped hero worship that people preach against. As personified by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, and animated as a green-faced ghoul with flaming red eyes, Hanson is hokum, but he also treads on the sacrilegious ground set out by numerous other entertainments. Most of his ranting is ridiculous, and there are a couple of moments of obvious observational satire (Hanson tells his family that the White Album tells him to kill, when everyone can plainly hear a faux British voice saying something VERY different), and there are several times when characters break the fourth wall to question Hanson's ideas. Yet one can't help but feel this is as much a celebration of mad man Charlie as it is a denouncement of his heinous actions as a dictatorial leader.
Other elements are equally unexciting. The songs never sizzle, failing to trade on the plentiful punk rock talent in the cast. Instead, many of the tunes traipse along like bad community dinner theater, staid chorus/verse vagueness that never really ties into the storyline (Sharon Hate sings about killing trees, not hugging them, in a purely pointless number). In addition, the movie feels disjointed. Act 1 centers on Hadie and the sex set-up. Act 3 is all about the murders. Act 2 sort of drags, never really finding its footing, even when Hate confronts the Hanson girls dumpster diving behind a local grocery store.
But perhaps the biggest concern is the lack of a clear-cut message to all this madness. Manson is a wonderfully evocative event in modern crime, something that can be debated and defined from many differing angles. Had Roecker stuck to one idea - Hanson is innocent since those he killed deserved death, for example - Live Freaky! Die Freaky! would be a much better movie. But he wants to court controversy and apparently avoid it as well. That is why the gloss of goofiness is so prevalent. Also, had he let the punkers play more with the musical aspect of this novelty, giving us pure power chord bliss instead of the tinkling keyboard crud we hear throughout, we'd easily embrace this movie more. As a gory, ludicrous lark, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is half a hilarious hoot. But as anything other than clay acting criminally (or carnally) it fails to fulfill its puppet promise.
Offered in an occasionally muddy 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is colorful, if rather unimpressive. There are moments when production flaws are noticed (some of the shots are less professional than others, and director Roecker offers a big final credits "F-You" to the animators who supposedly screwed the film over during its making) and a couple of scenes that are sensational (as when actual drawn animation is used during a "how to kill" musical number). While the overall look is clean and professional, this is far from a reference quality transfer. This is the kind of picture that belies a film's low budget leanings.
On the sound side, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! offers a fairly solid aural experience. All the actor voices are clear and crisp with no distortion or overmodulation. The music is mixed well and incorporated into the other elements smoothly. There are actually two different audio tracks - one a standard Dolby Digital 2.0, the other a far more fleshed out 5.1 presentation. Opt for the multi-faceted feature, as all the channels are utilized and we get much more bass in the selection of songs.
Aside from the Uncut and Uncensored nature of the release - which is kind of a given for a movie of this nature - the DVD version of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is loaded with added content. To start with, there is a bonus CD featuring the entire soundtrack for those who want to relive the film's insipid scoring. We also get an insert featuring an interview with Roecker. Marc Spitz, senior writer for Spin Magazine, lobs the softballs in his direction. As for the movie-based material, we get a selection of documentary featurettes, each one focusing on a different facet of the production. Most deal with recording the rockers for their parts in the film, and it's fun to watch Armstrong, Jane Wiedlen (ex-Go Gos and her own group frosted) and X's John Doe dig into Roecker's dialogue. We are also treated to some location footage for the real life desert sequence, a look at the rehearsals and the recording for many of the musical numbers, a music video making-of and a single deleted scene (not necessary to the narrative at all). We also get a glimpse at the director's storyboards for the film.
What's missing, of course, is how the animation was realized. There is none of the typical stop-motion backstage stories, with bleary-eyed animators discussing how a single scene took three weeks to shoot. Perhaps the best bonus then is the joking and jovial commentary featuring Roecker, Wiedlen and Armstrong. While it is far too friendly at times and strays off onto tangents in order to discuss non-film oriented issues, the threesome do add some necessary content to the conversation. Ideas are sort of explained and symbolism suggested as the gang goes gaga for almost everything here. It may not be the step-by-step deconstruction of the movie that many want, but it does add a lot of insight into what Roecker believed he was doing.
Murder is usually never funny, and no matter what they might have been in real life, the victims of violent crime don't really deserve vilification for what they were prior to being stripped of their existence. Like arguing that a battered young woman deserved her sexual assault because of her past or how she was dressed that night, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! seems to be suggesting that Tate, Sebring, LaBianca and the others were owed a good garroting by the hallucinating hippies from Spahn ranch. While Manson is never glorified or romanticized here, he is made into a murderous version of Hermy, the elf who wanted to be a dentist from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - misunderstood and bound for vindication. Still, this is a brutal and brazen bad taste treat, something that fans of early underground cinema will embrace as radical AND ridiculous. As a result, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! earns a Recommended rating. Had the satire been surer, and the target for lampooning more concrete, a higher score would have applied. But since there is a lack of punk pop musical numbers, and the overall look is kind of on the cheap side, a standard "see it" is all that's warranted. It is evident that the mania for Manson lives on. Too bad John Roecker couldn't find a better way to belittle it other than this humorous, half-successful attempt at animation.
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