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The Manson Family

About a month ago I saw this movie DEADBEAT AT DAWN, a sleazy, gorey student film about lowlife THE WARRIORS style gang members stabbing each other and robbing armored cars and spinning nunchucks in the cemetery. The director and star was Jim Van Bebber, who seemed a little bit too into shock value but I thought he was still likable. His movie is corny and amateurish as hell but it has alot of conviction. This guy is swinging on ropes and jumping off bridges and piling on the hideous gore effects like nobody’s business. It’s one of those things where you don’t really love the movie but the guy’s obvious dedication to getting it done sort of elevates it. It’s about the journey, man.

Usually a guy like this, they go on to make bigger and better movies and become well known and respected, or more likely they go on to make slicker but much worse movies and then their career fizzles out and you forget you ever thought they had any potential. It’s hard to say where Van Bebber is headed though because since he finished DEADBEAT in 1988 he never bothered to sell out to Hollywood or get stuck signing deals that never amount to anything. Since then he has spent almost his entire career on one other movie, CHARLIE’S FAMILY. Another raw, fiercely independent, ten thousand miles away from Hollywood kind of low budget movie. This time it’s about the Manson family, it has some of the same cast but Van Bebber plays family member Bobby instead of the lead.

The Manson FamilyAccording to my intense research (well, the trivia on imdb) CHARLIE’S FAMILY played some film festivals as a work-in-progress in 1997, but was only really finished in 2003 when that cool DVD company Blue Underground helped him out. So it’s coming to some American theaters this year, but I just saw it on some Czechoslovakian type DVD.

So here’s the deal. This movie, now imaginatively titled THE MANSON FAMILY, is another interesting/frustrating mixed bag. What I really liked is the same thing as DEADBEAT: it’s just raw and sleazy as hell. Alot of this movie looks like it was actually filmed in the ’60s and just discovered under somebody’s floorboards. I know NATURAL BORN KILLERS did that thing where they went nuts with the different filmstocks and what not, but here it seems authentic and logical. The scenes of the family are muddy old film, the interviews from the time are scratched and grimy (for real, not some phoney computer effect). There are fake interviews with a guy 25 years later, which you see as a distorted video with a TV show logo partially cropped on the bottom edge, like would sometimes happen in a real documentary. Attention to detail is good.

This Van Bebber has really learned how to use music and sound. There are some creepy uses of classical music, hippie music and actual Charles Manson songs. And subtle-enough trip outs with sounds of squealing pigs, electric static, dripping water and what have you.

Alot of the camera angles and editing are effectively disorienting. Sometimes it feels like one long dizzying psychedelic sequence. At the end, the film melts onscreen, which I don’t know about you but I’ve seen this trick before. But then Van Bebber leaves the screen white and buzzing for almost a full minute. (In a theater, I wonder how many people wait to be sure that it’s supposed to be that way.) Then the credits roll upwards, and are formatted backwards. It leaves you feeling like you just woke up for work but you set your alarm for pm instead of am and then you slept through the entire day.

There are times when the movie really seems to suck you into the madness of the family. It doesn’t feel cleaned up or held back like a TV movie. There are many graphic orgy scenes, they drink the blood of a dog and the murder scenes are pretty appalling, showing every god damn stab these freakos made. Just stabbing these people over and over and over again. And most of the acting is pretty convincing, although sometimes there is a Troma feel. Van Bebber himself is actually the best actor, playing tough guy Bobby, both in the past and 25 years later, with a different mustache.

So I liked all that but the problem is, the way this story is told just doesn’t work. I don’t understand why you would do it this way. I don’t care if you’re a rebel independent filmmaker, if you just told this story straightforward, it would be way more interesting. Instead it’s a series of fake interviews, with actors playing the family members 25 years later. And then it goes to re-enactments of what they’re talking about. But I’m not talking fake interview followed by long flashback segment which occasionally comes back to fake interview. I’m talking, the entire fucking movie is narrated by fake interviews. It’s a fake documentary. More of the story is told through talking than through footage. This would be forgivable if it was a real documentary because it’s not like they brought camera crews on their murder spree. But in this case, why are we wasting our time with fake interviews? We know they’re not real. Why not just stick with the re-enactments? Especially for the first half I felt like they were using excerpts from the actual MANSON FAMILY movie I want to see to pad out a fake documentary.

Even worse, there is this whole wraparound story about a TV producer, supposedly the guy who did the fake interviews. And there are scenes of him and one of his co-workers sitting in an editing room talking about “Charlie.” Meanwhile, there are also scenes of a bunch of tattooed naked kids in a basement somewhere shooting up and doing rituals to prepare for the thrilling conclusion of the movie, when they come murder the TV producer.

I’m sure things get confused when you spend 16 years making the same god damn movie, but at some point I wish Van Bebber would’ve realized that he was overcomplicating this thing, it was getting too muddled and stupid. I mean if it’s a true story (which this is, I’m pretty sure) you either a) make a documentary about it or b) don’t make a fucking fake documentary about it. Because that’s just stupid. He put all this effort into making it the most accurate movie version of the events, but then the whole time you’re watching it you never think “this is real” because you know those aren’t real interviews. By using this format they pull you out of the reality of the story and force you to notice how not real it actually is. It would feel a whole lot more authentic if it was just honest about being a movie and not pretending to be reality.

And for christ’s sake, stop wrapping around everything. Wraparounds are only for emergencies. There is no need to have this story be the background to another, less interesting story. You spend 16 years trying to make us believe in your re-creation of the Manson family and then you have to throw in fictional punk rock murderers that you know we know are not real? And then you put us in the uncomfortable position of trying to decide whether you think you are making a bold statement about the media’s exploitation of serial killers for the first time since MAN BITES DOG, SERIAL MOM, NATURAL BORN KILLERS and the rest of them?

I got mixed feelings about movies like this, that are about real crimes. I mean, I don’t know, if it was somebody you knew that got killed, it would be pretty horrible for there to be a movie like this. But on the other hand I think there are alot of really powerful/successful/pretty good movies that fall into that category, like DERANGED, ED GEIN, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, etc.

The only reason I bring it up is because I saw an article where Van Bebber said “We don’t show Tate getting stabbed in the belly… mainly out of my profound respect for her husband, Roman Polanski.” And that was a nice gesture and everything but I still would urge Roman Polanski, if he is reading this, not to watch the movie. I mean I know it’s been a while but I figure this would probaly still bring up some bad emotions to see your young innocent pregnant wife begging for her life, etc. It is a pretty good movie in some ways but really not worth it in the specific case of relatives of the murder victims. So please stay away guys, thanks. By the way THE PIANIST was really fucking good, I knew you were gonna get that oscar too, I shoulda put money on it.

Blue Underground makes some good DVDs, so I’m sure the American version will have a commentary track, which I would like to hear. I have some questions like, did you plan this as a fake documentary from the beginning, or did you just get lost along the way? And what’s the deal with the names? Is there some rights issue why they don’t use anybody’s full names? Or was it an artistical type consideration? I mean I can see why you might feel bad using the victims’ names (I think Sharon Tate is called “blond woman” or “mother” or something like that on the credits) but it’s kind of weird because they changed the name from CHARLIE’S FAMILY but in the movie everybody, even journalists, only refer to him as Charlie. I don’t think you ever even hear the word “Manson” in the movie, just in the title.

Still, it’s good that the title refers to the family and not just Manson. Because that’s sort of the emphasis on the movie is how yeah, this guy had some kind of effect on them, but it’s their own fucking fault. They’re the ones who did all this shit, not just him by remote control.

So the bottom line is this. I think this thing is a miss, but I still give it a “good game” for effort. I want to see the next Van Bebber movie, and hopefully it will be in less than ten years. If you have good taste, you might want to skip this one, because it is in poor taste. It doesn’t make a joke out of these crimes (like DERANGED did) but it’s very graphic which makes it either de-glamourized or sensationalistic, I’m not sure. But at least they didn’t say how the family had planned to skin Frank Sinatra alive while listening to his own music and then make purses out of his skin and sell them to hippie shops. I just read that while researching this review, that’s fucked up man. I’m not a huge Frank Sinatra fan but I’m glad they didn’t get to do that to him.

It would’ve been cool though if they had a scene where Manson tries out for the Monkees. But like I said this is more about the family so there’s no room for that.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Friday, October 1st, 2004 at 8:41 am and is filed under Crime, Drama, Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “The Manson Family”

  1. I agree that its nice that this movie reminds us that Charlie Manson himself had very little to actually do with the murders which bear his name. I am a scholar of such matters and always try to take the opportunity to sey the record straight. Manson was arguably maybe present at one of the murder site, except that it seems like he probably left before any actual murder occured. Meanwhile, Tex Watson, a amphetamine abusing psycho with a history of violent behvior — including probably two murders before the famous ones (Hinman and Shea)– actually did almost all the killing. Fortunately for Watson, the prosecution found difficult to charge him because he had fled to Texas and fought extradition with the help of local law enforcement.

    Meanwhile, conservative asshole of the highest order Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney, saw an opportunity to tweak every possible fear about the counterculture by making Manson the center of his case. Race tensions, drugs, mind control, sex, revolution, and finally, murder — Bugliosi’s case against Manson would play to all the most wrong-headed fears people had about the counterculture and ultimately do much to end the credibility of the hippies in the public’s eyes. It played so well to what mainstream America already thought about hippies that Bugliosi’s patently ludicrous assertions (for instance, that Manson used mind control and possessed hypnotic powers) not only went down without question, but they STILL almost exclusively define the way the story is told today. None of the ever-changing assertions by Mason, Watson, Atkins, or any of them really add up to much of a coherent story, probably because they were tripping out of their fucking minds all the time and saying, thinking, and doing all kinds of weird things. But Bugliosi insisted on the concept of “Helter Skelter,” milking people’s fears about a race war and insinuating all the murders were part of a kind of criminal master plan (in fact, with the possible exception of the LaBianca murders, it seems likely all the other murders related to drugs and drug deals gone bad – yes, even the Tate ones, where it seems extremely likely that at least someone in the house was familiar with the family and had done business with them before. And why not? Polanksi, Tate, et al were probably having an even crazier drug-fueled hedonistic time than Manson et al were. Supposedly, police found orgy home video footage Polanksi shot which included unbelievable shit. One supposedly showed a train with Yul Brenner, Peter Sellars, and Mama Cass. Thse videos were mentioned in initial press reports but subsequently “disappeared” and were never brought up again). Anyway, the whole concept of Helter Skelter a an organized plan thought up by Manson and carried out by his mind-controlled minions is patently absurd. Basically, there was no plan, just a bunch of random, drug-fueled violence with paranoia, drugs, and Tex Watson at the center and Manson and the family kind of swirling around fueling it in a kind of directionless way.

    What difference does it make? Well, it just goes to show what a crazy time the 60s were that Bugliosi was able to take these incoherent, mentally ill, strung out maniacs and craft together a story which was universally hailed as the truth. It had tremendous impact on the public faith in the counterculture (which Bugliosi made no bones about his hatred for) and shaped the way people would look at cultural outsiders for decades. Manson became the symbol for all of this, and, being a mentally ill lifelong prison man, did everything he could to milk his stardom. In a way, Manson is a great example of the kind of choice media gives us — to be a worthless forgotten lifelong loser rotting in prison, or to be the best-known and most intriguing serial killer in American history? Given the choice, Manson went whole hog, playing his life as colorfully as possible. Meanwhile, public sentiment sours against the counterculture, the movement turns in on itself and becomes a hedonistic, capitalist machine, and before you know it, Ronald Reagan is in the White House. Not to say that Manson and company weren’t assholes and didn’t deserve what they got, but unfortunatly they played right into the hands of the people who most wanted to kill the counterculture and bring America back under control.

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