Studio: Severin Films
Director: Jim Van Bebber
Writer: Jim Van Bebber
Producer: Michael King, Jim Van Bebber, Carl Daft, David Gregory
Stars: Marcelo Games, Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse, Amy Yates, Jim Van Bebber, Carl Day
When a TV news program recounts the story of the Manson Family for an anniversary special, a modern day cult prepares an attack on the newsman covering the retrospective.
“The Manson Family” movie is as erratic, disturbing, uninhibited, and fueled by as much hallucinogenic imagery as the actual Manson Family itself. It is also as strangely fascinating and as perversely captivating as the titular cult.
Those unfamiliar with varied details of Charles Manson and his following of disillusioned hippies will find themselves just as muddled after watching the film. “The Manson Family” is not for anyone in search of a primer on Helter Skelter or the Tate-LaBianca murders. Writer/director Jim Van Bebber cuts and pastes his film together into a narrative that is disjointed out of necessity as much as artistic intention.
Plagued by perpetual funding difficulties, Van Bebber crafted the film in sporadic spurts over a period of about 14 years. In its final form, the movie shows its parentage of being a labor of commitment combined with inconsistent staging. While a thematic thread of continuity seems to be missing from the overall package, “The Manson Family” reaps a benefit from its particular predicament with performances from actors portraying the real-life personas at various ages. It is difficult to imagine that Van Bebber began the project with this intention, but he suitably adjusted his vision to fit the circumstance.
“The Manson Family” stages snippets from various scenes across the family’s timeline. Acid trips, group sex orgies, communal living at the Spahn Ranch, and ritualistic murder rotate in and out of the movie’s truncated history lesson. Bridging the time jumps are post-crime interviews with older, and on occasion wiser, members of Manson’s group. Characters include infamous names like Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel. Juxtaposed against these events from 1969 through 1971 is a parallel tale set in 1996, where a modern day Manson-esque cult plans to murder a TV reporter preparing his 25th anniversary retrospective on Charlie’s Family.
What “The Manson Family” lacks in consistent storytelling, it makes up for with cinematic flair. Van Bebber achieves a vintage look so authentic that someone who did not know better could easily mistake this for a seventies crime exploitation film. That feel is nailed not just in the décor, hairstyles, and costumes, but also in the camera movement, party gel lighting, and film-aging techniques that are an unmistakable mark of the era depicted.
The framing interview sequences are fantastic. Nearly every actor portraying a former Family member speaks with a convincing authenticity that perfectly sells the documentary angle. Van Bebber himself stands out as Manson henchman Bobby Beausoleil. There is a relaxed nature in demeanor and in delivery to everyone’s post-crime reflections that is frankly unexpected to be found so liberally amongst a cast of unfamiliar names. These actors embody the subtleties of their roles.
Whatever criticisms there may be of Van Bebber, he has a skill for pulling out performances and for casting the right people. Not to be overlooked is veteran newsman Carl Day as fictional television personality Jack Wilson. It is a small detail to cast an actual reporter for the part, but it is a detail that goes a long way towards establishing the world onscreen as believable. Day has that characteristic timbre and cadence ingrained in every longtime news anchor that a professional actor could never quite emulate.
Where “The Manson Family” unravels is in that classic wrestling match between style and substance. “The Manson Family” captivates on a technical level with its haunting interpretations of horrible historical events and with its impressive cinematic style. But that style is so singularly focused on arty flourishes that story and meaning fade far into the background. Just as no one going into the film will leave much wiser about facts surrounding the Manson Family and their crimes, no one will gain any insight into their motivations or psyches either. A Manson history neophyte would have a difficult time matching the Family member names to the onscreen characters when it was all said and done. Ultimately, the movie has little to offer about any of them as individuals.
It would be unfair to require the film to say anything rational about irrational behavior. But the greater crime of “The Manson Family” is that the artistic indulgence that makes the visual experience interesting routinely wanders into self-serving territory. “The Manson Family” is guilty of choking on so much style that much of the symbology becomes heavy handed. The opening montage of a blood soaked American flag and blood raining on white flower petals is so on-the-nose as to be laughable.
The greatest misstep, however, is the inclusion of the 1996 framing sequence. “The Manson Family” would have been a far more sensible story if it had focused strictly on actual events. With its depictions of Stars and Stripes painted dildos set to recordings of the Jonestown death tape, the wraparound can be categorized as nothing other than unnecessary, except as a device purely meant to shock and disarm the audience. A moment when a misguided youth wearing a Manson t-shirt tries to explain the meaning behind “Charlie don’t surf” approaches commentary about false idolization of the convicted criminal, but devolves into a sensationalized scene of pointless violence.
If other films had not offered more sober portrayals of the true-life events and personalities, it would be easier to forgive “The Manson Family” for being as unhinged as its namesake. Although to a degree, schlocky employments such as adding pig grunts to stabbing scenes are nearly dismissible because the entire movie is so universally demented. No matter its faults as a narrative, there is no denying that “The Manson Family” can have an unsettling effect as a horror film. And that is due as much to Jim Van Bebber’s directorial sensibilities and artistic style as it is to the disturbing subject matter upon which the movie is based.
NOTE: "The Manson Family" was previously titled “Charlie’s Family.”
Review Score: 65