There have already been a few high profile films about Charles Manson, but these films have focused more on his part in the notorious murders committed on his behalf by his followers, rather than the followers themselves. Sure, Manson played a large role in whatever was done by his “family” cult, as he was its leader, but I’ve always found that the responsibility for these killings wasn’t adequately doled out. While Manson remains the face we place on these horrific acts, most folks can’t even name a single person who actually got their hands dirty on Charlie’s behalf. Worse yet, the public have seemingly absolved the members of the cult of guilt altogether, placing the onus squarely on Manson, America’s first superstar serial killer who, ironically, never actually killed anyone at all.
In director Jim Van Bebber’s disturbing The Manson Family, Charlie once again gets top billing, but it’s the members of the cult who are the stars here. Presented as a quasi-documentary, with convincingly aged film, mixed media, and a hallucinatory visual style that calls to mind the subversive cinema of the late 60’s/early 70’s, Van Bebber focuses on the drug-fueled orgies, endless parties, and general social malaise of the cult. In his interpretation, Van Bebber sees the “family” as little more than a group of selfish teens and twenty-somethings who use their affiliation with Manson as more of a means to exercise their primal urges, rather than follow any “message” the misguided messiah had to offer. While the general consensus is that Manson was the mastermind behind all of his family’s actions, Van Bebber suggests that, while at first he did have some semblance of control over his family, in the end it was the family who controlled him. It’s a simple and effective statement that Van Bebber makes here, suggesting that the family simply used Manson as an excuse for committing a heinous crime, the same way someone may blame heavy metal, child abuse, or…gulp…horror movies! It’s as if Van Bebber is telling us to wake up, drop the excuses, and lay the blame where it belongs.
Known for his use of over-the-top violence in films like Deadbeat at Dawn and Roadkill, Van Bebber doesn’t shy away from the gore here. Perhaps he felt it was necessary to show his antagonists gleefully partaking in these murders with plentiful gore and lurid detail, but I found it exploitative and unnecessary. These were real crimes committed against real people, and I just think that these scenes could have been handled in an entirely different way and still have effectively driven Van Bebber’s message home. Then again, the director doesn’t flinch when showing the erotic side of cult life, either, with plentiful nudity and graphic depiction of simulated (or not, depending on who you believe) sex acts.
The Manson Family was shot over the better part of a decade, basically shooting when enough money could be raised to do so. Of course any low-budget film shot over this amount of time is doomed to suffer even greater setbacks, and these are chronicled in a great behind-the-scenes documentary called “The Van Bebber Family”, which is included in this two-disc set from Dark Sky Films/MPI. Personally, I enjoyed this feature more than the film it chronicled, as the story behind the making of this film is fascinating stuff. Rarely is a supplement reason enough to buy a DVD, but this is just such a case.
I don’t really know if one can truly “like” this film, as it isn’t the sort of movie that I would call entertaining. It’s an undeniably fascinating piece of cinema, and is expertly made, but it’s a bit bi-polar in its execution, reaching giddy highs when it focuses on the drug-fueled communal existence of the family, and hitting depressing and off putting lows in its depiction of their crimes. I also found the seemingly tacked on “modern” Manson followers that bookend the film to be a contrived and unsubtle attempt to fortify the message Van Bebber had already conveyed with the film proper. Still, this is definitely a film that one needs to see to truly appreciate, and the fantastic supplements on the DVD make it an essential purchase for indie filmmakers and fans alike.