For sheer ambition, “The Manson Family” deserves a 10 out of 10. Due to some flaws in execution and a somewhat vague (and occasionally frustrating) narrative, it falls a bit short of its lofty aspirations, but its potent stew of fact, conjecture, violence, sex, hallucinatory imagery, and ear-bending sound design for the most part work, due mostly to the film’s impressive cache of style. Instead of what it might have been – a gratuitous “Natural Born Killers” knockoff populated with actual persons and events – “The Manson Family” manages to paint a fairly vivid (if not always lucid) portrait of the kind of fervent loyalty that Manson was able to inspire, and continues to inspire today.
I probably had an advantage going into this film in that I knew nearly nothing about the Manson Family murder spree other than it claimed the lives of Sharon Tate and the child she was bearing with Roman Polanski. And to be honest, I don’t really feel like I know much more after viewing Jim Van Bebber’s take on the events – but then again, that’s not the purpose of his movie. Whereas other films about the horrors enacted by the Family have focused on the facts and on the persona of the group’s leader, this take places the emphasis on the followers: the girls and men who carried out Charlie’s orders. In fact, Charlie himself appears only sporadically throughout, disappearing for huge chunks of time, as the rest of the gang does his dirty work.
This was really not what I was expecting going into “The Manson Family” (particularly given the insanely grinning face of Marcelo Games as Charlie on the cover), but it was a pleasant surprise, for the most part. Instead of a 90-minute one-man revue of someone imitating Charles Manson, the film is a layered, sly, multi-perspective account of the events surrounding the murders, provided by those who were involved. As one might expect, not everyone necessarily tells the whole truth, and the perspectives of the subjects even vary over time (the “interviews” that make up much of the film are staged before, immediately after, and 25 years following the events, providing extra texture to the characters and accounts). Even the dramatic “recreations” of the events (they’re almost too stylized to really be considered as such, but they serve the same purpose) are subject to the will of the narrators – an interesting approach given that a handful of drugged-up hippies are pretty likely to give a few disparate accounts of what they remember happening.
The one drawback of this mercurial, rapid-fire barrage of eyewitness accounts, subjective imagery and re-creation is that it seems there’s no one at the helm: the inmates are literally running the asylum. And like just about ever hippie that I know personally, it takes them a bit of time and prodding to get to the point. The narrative is just a bit too loose here (although I’ll admit that the visual flights of fancy – and horror – are sometimes quite striking), and the tangents, while competently rendered, become redundant and sap the urgency out of the story. Let’s be honest: once you’ve seen one acid-fueled orgy, you’ve seen them all, and no amount of fake animal blood poured on the proceedings can change that.
Another weak point for me is the modern-day coda of sorts that is weaved into the Family’s story: a local television producer is putting together a story on the Family in 1996, and a group of local kids who seem to worship Charlie (the Extended Manson Family, perhaps?) are dead-set against it. This unrelated plotline was likely devised to give the pace of the film a little more oomph, but it’s not really that effective. Besides, next to the whacked-out hippies of yesteryear, these Marilyn Manson-looking neo-goths are actually not nearly as interesting – particularly since none of them even speaks until the last 15 minutes. They look like the knockoffs they are: a bandwagoning group of kids trying to latch onto something that they think has meaning. As such, the murder that they commit (which I don’t believe was based on an actual event) is gratuitous.
Perhaps the most inspired decision that Van Bebber (who also stars in the film as Bobby, Charlie’s right-hand man) made here is in the film’s overall stylistic scheme. By emulating the look and feel of late-sixties ‘trip films’, Van Bebber bought himself quite a bit of leniency in terms of what he could get away with; those films were anything but sophisticated in terms of their imagery, composition, and cutting, and by using them as a model Van Bebber buys himself considerable leeway in terms of how visually distinct he could make this film on an indie budget. As everything about the film has that throwback grassroots feel to it (aided by considerable use of scratch filters and jump-cuts), the somewhat low-rent effects seem almost charming and nostalgic.
That’s not to say the film itself is charming, of course: though candy-colored and fast-moving, the murders – when they eventually occur – are anything but pleasant. As you’ve been encouraged to distrust and dislike these people by this point, your sympathies are definitely not with the Family once the knives come out, which is ethically a wise move. Also admirable is the restraint (which is something that the rest of the film displays a refreshing lack of) Van Bebber employs in regards to the more shocking and grotesque elements of the film (a rape scene thankfully features no nudity or simulated sex, and is still certainly disturbing in the way it places the camera in the point of view of the victim; the murder of Tate and her baby are not shown). This would have been far too easy a tale to tip into exploitation (particularly since the exploitation genre is emulated here), but the action thankfully avoids it, artfully dancing along the line between abject horror and objectivity. As a horror fan, I was admittedly enthralled by the gore and the effective pitch that the film is able to reach at several points; as a human being I was satisfied that this enthrallment was not the aim of the film. Understanding the blood frenzy that the Family was able to reach together is important; remembering that the victims were real and the acts horrific is vital.
The performances are all over the map, at times to the benefit of the film (sometimes bad actors play bad liars better than good actors do) and at times to its detriment (although thankfully few, there are several embarrassing “dude, I’m so high!” moments that would have been better left behind). Marc Pitman’s Tex is squirmingly conflicted (the fact that he recounts the events in a church wearing a priest’s collar and tends to leave out his own involvement in the heinous crimes is telling), and Van Bebber’s Bobby is like Sam Elliot on a bad hair day. The girls are unfortunately a bit harder to tell apart given both that their contemporary appearances differ so drastically from their younger selves (one is now a born-again Christian, another is wizened from years of prison) and that they all tend to be brunettes with a slight resemblance to a young Parker Posey (odd, I know – but see if you don’t agree). While some certainly do fare better than others, on the whole the ensemble is capable and at its best when it’s lost in the heat of the moment – much like the Family itself.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend “The Manson Family” to just anyone, but I’m surprised and impressed at just how accessible, sly, and thoughtful Van Bebber has managed to make what in less-capable hands could be a complete shambles. Although slowed down by repetitive sequences that may establish mood but do little to advance the story, for the most part “The Manson Family” is visually engaging, exciting, and challenging stuff. This film hooks into your mind just as well as it hooks into your gut, which is an accomplishment even when material as widely-discussed as this isn’t up for discussion.