The above is from a trailer for The Manson Family included on this disc and is also quoted on the back cover. Being a DVDTalk reviewer for a relatively short time, this is the first time I have been faced with the unique challenge of covering a new release of a title that previously received praise worthy enough of being quoted on it. I had not seen this movie or known about its unusual production history prior to receiving this Blu-Ray disc for review, so would I end up feeling the same way about it?
Though identified onscreen as Charlie's Family, the cover and all references to the title on this disc call it The Manson Family so I'll assume that is the preferred title. The movie serves as a loose retelling of Charles Manson's "family" commune in the late 1960s, which began as a haven for drugs, group sex and "enlightenment" before falling into a state of paranoia which led to the famous spree of home invasions and murders.
The movie consists mainly of portrayals of these events, with Marcelo Games playing Charlie Manson and the five principal "family" members Leslie, Bobby, Sadie, Patty and Tex portrayed by Amy Yates, director Jim VanBebber, Maureen Allisse, Leslie Orr and Marc Pitman, respectively. A TV show in post-production stage called "Jack Wilson's Crime Scene" is used as a framing device for these scenes, with real-life Dayton, OH newscaster Carl Day playing Wilson along with his assistant. They are in an editing room going through interview footage of the family members in prison, conducted for a show done for the 25th anniversary of their convictions. Jack comments to his assistant how Manson has usually received most of the media attention for the killings, while those who actually "put the bullets and knives in the victims" have for the most part gone ignored and he's hoping to change that with this show. As they look through the taped interviews, the movie cuts to the depictions of the events being described which are the real "meat" of the film. Only a few times does the movie cut back to the editing room, but often the taped interviews (shot off a video screen) are interspersed to shed a bit more light on what we're seeing although there are a number of times where they contradict themselves- for example when Tex is seen taking part in the gang-rape of a woman visiting a family gathering, it cuts to him saying that he never did take part in that. (Tex's interview footage is shown with him in a church setting in a priest's outfit, as he's become a priest at his prison's church.) There's also a strange subplot going on with a cultish group in the city where the TV show is being produced, where they mostly hang out in a strange underground room. It isn't quite clear what their place in all of this is until the very end.
On first viewing, my reaction was similar to that of when I had first seen Oliver Stone's The Doors- I was expecting a more straight-forward retelling of a true story, and wasn't quite prepared for the absolutely chaotic structure. It was also at times difficult to place the events. One should have a basic knowledge of the true story for some of this to make sense as a lot of it isn't pointed out- for example, the scene depicting the murder of actress Sharon Tate doesn't identify her or any of the other victims by name so at first glance it's a little difficult to discern if this is what is being portrayed. The framing of the story with the TV show producers is confusing as well- the only thing they are seeing in their studio is the interview footage of the five principal family members. When the movie then flashes back to the depictions of the events, it's hard to tell what context to put those in relation to the TV show production. These are relatively well-done however, and might have been better presented without the framing devices. All of the actors are believable, with Marcelo Games playing Manson with just the right amount of "craziness". At first he leads his followers in group sex and partaking of drugs as a way to the late-60s ideals of "peace and happiness." We see a bit of his attempt at a musical career as he plays the guitar and sings accompanied by some of the family members, and at one point they're shown making a demo recording and hoping to score a record deal. (While they weren't successful then, an album of their music was issued after their arrests and in 1990 was issued on CD. I bought this CD back then as I would usually buy anything odd released on the format- it's quite an interesting listen as some songs are surprisingly decent while some are just out there.) A few of their songs are included in this movie, such as "Garbage Dump" underscoring a scene where family members take discarded food from dumpsters behind a supermarket and make a meal out of it for a gathering. A key sequence is when Charlie and the family ‘sacrifice' a dog in a field at night, drink its blood and then pour it over each other as they engage in group sex. VanBebber handles all of these scenes in a variety of styles, mostly keeping in tune with those of the smaller films of the period with a rotating camera, a variety of psychedelic effects, and some cutting to random images at times. Some scenes play as straight dramatizations, while others are much more dreamlike.
An important detail about this movie which puts much of it in perspective is that it was in production for FIFTEEN YEARS before being released as the version we see here. As detailed in the extensive extras on the disc, production began in 1988, then funding simply ran out and filming was resumed as money, cast and crew allowed. I wasn't aware of this on first viewing, but it certainly explains the unevenness, and on subsequent viewings made me a bit more forgiving of the initial criticisms I had.
Filmed on 16mm in a 4x3 ratio, this Blu-Ray presents The Manson Family faithfully to how it was intended to look. Director Jim VanBebber states in the extras that he wanted to use different filmmaking styles in different scenes, with some shots looking rather clean, others having more grain and some having intentional dirt and scratches. The Blu-Ray presents all of this without any noticeable compression artifacts.
The 5.1 sound mix in DTS HD Master Audio (incorrectly indicated on the cover as Dolby Digital) is rather interesting. At times, random sound effects are included which come from all over the place- this was one of those mixes where I had to look to the side to make sure that sounds I heard from the surrounds weren't actually there in my living room, which I consider a good thing. While the surrounds aren't always active, when they are they definitely get your attention. There is also a second audio track in 2-channel Dolby Digital, indicated on the menu as stereo but is actually mono. Viewing the movie a second time with this track proved how much impact the audio loses without the use of multiple channels.
Severin's Blu-Ray release retains most of the extras from the 2005 2-disc DVD release. A new extra is an audio commentary with Jim VanBebber who gives us a few details that aren't addressed in the other extras, such as how one of the inspirations for the movie was the 1980s Charles Manson TV interview with Geraldo Rivera, where he comments that Manson "came off better than Geraldo." He also mentions the research he did to portray things as accurately as possible, which was a larger undertaking in the pre-internet era. He doesn't address the long time it took to complete the movie however; I was hoping that he would point out when each scene was shot to give us a frame of reference. About 66 minutes into the movie, when the murders begin, he ends the commentary saying that he has run out of things to talk about at that point.
Another new extra is "Gator Green", a recent short film from director Jim VanBebber about a tavern run by Vietnam veterans and a nearby alligator farm, in HD with a 2-channel sound mix. Then there's a 10-minute interview with Philip Anselmo (best known as the lead singer for Pantera) who discusses contributions he made to The Manson Family's music and sound effects as well as his admiration of independent films.
"The VanBebber Family" is a 75-minute piece (in standard-def 16x9 with mono sound) on the making of Charlie's Family which as I mentioned earlier, puts a lot of confusion one may have had while viewing the movie into perspective as it illustrates what a long process (15 years total) it was to get completed. Jim VanBebber fills us in on how the movie started out as a fast, cheap exploitation film about the family and killings, but he quickly realized that he wanted to make a more respectable movie that really did the material justice. The main problem was running out of funding that was required. Most of the cast and crew involved with the production speak at length about their experiences- notably absent is "Charlie Manson" himself, Marcelo Games- it's revealed that after the initial shoot, he decided he did not want to play that role anymore and bowed out (this isn't apparent when you watch the movie however, as he's present in scenes throughout the movie and doesn't simply disappear near the end). Altogether, this extra gives you a real appreciation for the finished product, regardless of what you might think of it. It certainly shows how dedicated VanBebber was- while I'm not a filmmaker myself, I've had countless projects and obligations which after just a few weeks I wanted to just hurry up and finish.
Another 75-minute extra is "In the Belly of the Beast," (in standard-def 4x3) which I found fascinating in its own right. Not dealing directly with The Manson Family itself but rather with the 1997 FANT-ASIA film festival in Montreal where a rough cut of Charlie's Family was first shown to an audience. Other films that were shown in that festival are also given ample time here, including A Gun for Jennifer, Dust Devil and the short film "Aftermath", with their directors speaking on their experiences and hardships in making them. While there have been a number of changes in the independent filmmaking world since 1997, some good and some bad, this piece reinforced my appreciation for those who make movies more for their love of them and wanting them to be seen by an audience, rather than for the sole purpose of making money. (An odd error occurs at the end of this, where the "VanBebber Family" extra begins for a few seconds before cutting off, cropped to 4x3 but with a stereo sound mix as opposed to the mono audio on the feature included on the disc.)
If this still isn't enough, we also get 12 minutes of clips from a 1989 videotaped interview footage with the real Charles Manson, which was included in the documentary "Charles Manson Superstar." Although the editing on this is a bit annoying (it frequently fades to black, then fades up as the next excerpt begins), it's presented with his profanity intact rather than being censored as the times he's appeared on regular TV. Still, what he says isn't quite as memorable as the Geraldo Rivera interview I saw many years ago, though it appears here he's been allowed to talk without being prodded too much. Some of what he says is rather nonsensical, but he mentions his desire to make more music and to be released from prison and live in the desert. After this, we have 14 minutes of deleted scenes, which were taken from a VHS tape that appears to have been copied several generations and shown on a Steenbeck editor shot directly with a video camera, possibly the most "lo-def" material ever presented on a Blu-Ray disc. Finally, we have a number of video-based trailers for the movie, with two including the DVDTalk quote "One of the best true crime films ever made."
While I personally cannot fully agree with the lofty praise this film has received previously, I do think that it is nevertheless an impressive effort and feel that given its long and troubled production history that it is a miracle that it turned out as well as it did. The Blu-Ray's technical presentation is excellent which will certainly make it an essential purchase for those who already hold The Manson Family in high regard, and provides an optimal way for first-time viewers to experience it and form their own opinions. This is certainly a movie that will require multiple viewings to truly comprehend and appreciate. (Just a warning to the easily offended however that the violence in this is very graphic, with some rather explicit sex as well.) On their own, the extras effectively document what independent filmmakers must sometimes go through in order to make the films THEY want as opposed to what outside forces tell them to, and as an audience we're usually all the better for that.
For another perspective on The Manson Family, check out Bill Gibron's review of the previous DVD release.