The Manson Family (2003)

Starring: Marcelo Games, Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse, Jim Van Bebber

Directed by: Jim Van Bebber

Rating: 1 2

'Doe, a deer, a female deer...' Marcelo Games as Charlie Manson in Jim Van Bebber's The Manson Family

The Manson Family has been a work in progress for over a decade, but is only just now being shown in this country. Lucky us.

Whilst a film about the infamous homicidal Anti-Christ Charles Manson and his drug-fuelled knife-wielding Family is never going to make for tasteful, cheery viewing, Van Bebber's movie is an unnecessarily gory, exploitative and superficial take on the tale.

The film is shot in a grainy, incoherent, home movie style, with flashbacks of life on the Family's Death Valley ranch interspliced with 'interviews' with the central protagonists, shot thirty years ago after the arrests of the Family or in the present day. (Cue some very bad aging make-up effects, including talcum powder in the hair and wrinkles that are clearly drawn on with an eyeliner pencil.)

According to the stupid and annoying framing story, these clips are being drawn together by some grey haired TV producer for a documentary about the Family. This gives Van Bebber a crap excuse for some laboured explanation about the actions of the Family and the continuing influence of Charlie, which, incidentally, does little to help us work out what's going on. The documentary draws the adverse attention of a nasty group of sado-masochistic junkie goths, who live in a basement surrounded by bondage gear and who take offence at the idea of this capitalist pig messing with the legend of their hero. So they take lots of drugs and kill him.

Whether or not this episode is based on true events, I neither know nor care. Either way, it's unnecessary and utterly gratuitous. Okay, so presumably it's supposed to show how Charlie's legacy of twisted, brainwashing evil lives on to this day, but it distracts from the Manson Family story itself and is actually responsible for the most unpleasant and unwatchable scenes in the film. Anything the Family can do, the youth of the 1990s can do worse, with harder drugs and nastier looking torture equipment. Ew.

The other problem with the film is that you're never entirely sure what's going on. The cutting together of interview footage and Manson home movie is nicely done, resulting at times in a clever juxtaposition of viewpoints, but it can be awfully confusing. All the characters look the same (especially with their clothes off) and it's pretty much impossible to work out who's who, or which young character grows into which older interviewee. This effectively prevents any emotional involvement with the protagonists, although given that they're all a bunch of drugged up hippy basketcases, perhaps this would be difficult anyway.

And that's the other thing. If this film is supposed to be revealing some kind of truth about the Family, then portraying them as a bunch of drugged up hippy basketcases is hardly groundbreaking. What drove these basically ordinary, decent American teenagers to commit murders of such shocking brutality? Should we blame the drugs? But hell, everybody was taking drugs in 1969 (weren't they?) and nobody else felt the need to break into rich people's houses and stab and stab and stab them 'til the rooms were red with blood. Just how many drugs do you have to take before you believe that a small beardy hillbilly hippy is Christ and the Beatles are angels inciting you to kill?

Two of the characters from The Manson Family. Don't ask me who they are, they all look the same...

So that brings us to Charlie. The ringleader, the father of the Family, the New Messiah. Here again, the film lets us down, because Charlie (played by spooky looky-likey Marcelo Games) isn't given nearly enough screen time to impress us with the charisma and hypnotically powerful personality that could brainwash so many people. The film makes no attempt to explain his mysterious hold over the Family, how this strange little man could incite his followers to such a frenzy of paranoia, hatred and rage that they could commit such vicious and inhuman acts. We're told repeatedly by the interviewees, in varying terms of hippy superbole, what an amazing, energetic and inspiring man he was, but we never get to see any evidence of this. Instead we have to make do with piecemeal glimpses of history, drenched in bucketloads of ketchupy blood, swirling with cheap psychedelia and spiced with way too much extremely unerotic and rather comical group sex. By the end of the film, I felt I knew about as much about the Manson Family as I had when I went in. i.e. Not a lot.

All in all, the film is treading on uncomfortable moral ground. The unpalatable gorefest of the murders implies that, yes, Charlie's acts were evil, and that to worship him as some kind of underground icon can only lead to more violence and death. And yet, by enticing susceptible types into late night cinemas to view these acts in uncompromising bloodthirsty Technicolor, is the film not just perpetuating, even glamourising, the myth? Um. not sure.

There is a fascinating, insightful and chilling film to be a made about the Manson Family. Just a shame this isn't it. A crass, helter skelter rattle through the story, this version is neither enlightening nor particularly interesting. But you know what, it's still not quite as bad as Van Helsing...

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