For me, no actor has, or, perhaps, ever will, captured the pure evil and lunacy of Charles Manson as well as Steve Railsback did in his breakout performance in 1976’s Helter Skelter. Here’s a television movie (yes, an actual movie made for broadcast television! Remember those?) that still haunts me to this day, and I credit much of that to Railsback’s absolutely dead-on portrayal of the notorious cult leader. The actor was so effective in the role that, when I think of the actual Manson, I picture Railsback. While there’s been a few admirable attempts (most notably Jeremy Davies’ turn in the 2004 mini-series “remake”), I’ve yet to see a Manson film that didn’t have me pining for Railsback’s batshit-insane, wonky-eyed, truly manic delivery, so, as a rule, I’ve generally avoided them. I recently made an exception, however, with the quirkily satirical indie offering, Manson: My Name is Evil, with the caveat being that the film isn’t really about Charlie at all.
Originally released as Leslie: My Name is Evil (and still called that during the end credits), the film focuses on the gorgeous young prom queen-turned killer cultist, Leslie Van Houten (Kristine Hager), and the yuppie yin to her yang, Perry (Gregory Smith), a conflicted young jury member captivated by her stunning beauty. When we are first introduced to Leslie, her family is falling apart, and this promising, popular girl seeks solace in the world of LSD and free love. She is impregnated by a “beatnik drug dealer” and her mother forces her to have an abortion, leading Leslie to close the door on her old life and embark on a quest for a “new sense of purpose” amongst the flower children where, ultimately, the impressionable young girl falls in with Manson and his ilk.
In stark contrast, we are presented with Perry, a devoutly religious young man with a strong work ethic, patriotic family, and an adoring wife who shares his passion for all things Christian. At his father’s urging, Perry is leaning toward joining the war effort in Vietnam, but, when his own sense of self-preservation kicks in, he defies his father’s wishes and signs on for a job with the Star Spangled Chemical Company, who offer him an employment deferral that will keep him in country where his skills as a chemical engineer will be of better service to the military. It’s this minor act of defiance that leads to Perry’s inevitable downslide, where he begins to question his commitment to his demanding father, overzealous wife, and to God, himself. Matters are made worse when Perry receives a summons for jury duty, whereupon he is chosen to determine the fates of Charles Manson and three of his “girls”, amongst them the ethereally beautiful Leslie. There’s an immediate connection, there, when Perry and Leslie’s eyes first meet. For Perry, Leslie is a reclamation project – a good, young Christian like himself who simply lost her way. For Leslie, Perry represents what could have been. He’s the sort of cute, suburban professional girls like her were meant to be with. Still, Charlie holds sway over his stable of girls, and Leslie’s still very much under his control. When Charlie carves a cross into his forehead, Leslie follows suit. When he shaves his head, she, too, enters the courtroom bald. She shows little remorse for her crimes yet Perry sees something that his fellow jurors don’t, and it’s here that the film becomes something of a one-sided love story, with Perry studiously scribbling down every redeeming quality Leslie’s character witnesses present the jury with, mooning over her childhood photos, and, generally, proving to be a major thorn in the side of the prosecution.
Manson: My Name is Evil (I hate that title, by the way, although I imagine it’ll lead to more DVD sales) is a wonderfully satirical, surreal, and fascinating look at a turbulent time in American history, scaled down to an intimate tale of two completely disparate personalities. While much of the focus is on the once titular character of Leslie, this is really a film about coming of age and the myriad choices that come with that, with Perry serving as the true lynchpin, here. Here we have the prototypical good son; a young man who has kept in step with his family's doctrines and desires his entire life. He’s a good student, a faithful fiancé, and a dedicated Christian who, one day, realizes that may not be who he is at all. Leslie serves as the forbidden fruit dangling from the tree at the crossroads. Leslie, too, is at a crossroads of sorts, but her unwavering devotion to Manson is leading her down the wrong path, and Perry feels he is the only thing that can lead her back, blissfully unaware that his efforts to save her soul are threatening to consume his.
Shot in dreamlike fashion, with lots of greenscreen, stock footage, and some fantastically authentic and colorful sets, Manson: My Name is Evil (did I mention how much I hate that title?) is a visual treat, and a master class in micro-budget cinema ingenuity. Writer/Director, Reginald Harkema, recreates the turbulent period using a variety of mediums and filtering effects, montages of iconic scenes and images from the period, and lots of subtle (and not so subtle, as in the case of the huge American flag backdrop in the courtroom) imagery. Obviously, budgetary restraints made filming scenes like campus riots and mass gatherings impossible, so when, for example, Perry looks out the window of his classroom, he “sees” grainy stock footage of police brutalizing protestors. This might strike some as cheap, but, to me, it’s no different than similar methods employed by Oliver Stone in “Natural Born Killers” (a film whose influence is very much felt here). As such, Harkema is extra-reliant on his actors and, for the most part, they’re up to the challenge. Hager is perfect in the role of Leslie Van Houten, and not just due her stunning beauty (although, admittedly, it helps a ton). Hager imbues Leslie with a childish innocence and charm that makes it easy to see why Perry feels as though it’s his duty to save her. We can relate to this because, we, too, are captivated by her, as she commands our attention through a simple glance, tilt of the head, or the furrow in her brow. As a matter of fact, much of Hager’s best work comes when she has nothing to say at all. Smith, meanwhile, does a wonderful job articulating Perry’s inner-struggles, and offers a convincing portrayal of a man at war with his own values and sense of self. Ryan Robbins does an admirable job as Manson, although, by necessity, his is merely a supporting player, more caricature than character. Still, we get a sense of the charisma and gravitas that drew Leslie to him in the first place.
By changing the film’s title from Leslie to Manson, I fear those behind the decision may be shooting themselves in the foot, here, as fans of serial killer bio-pics – especially Manson fanatics - will most likely walk away from this film angered, unsatisfied, and completely missing the point. It’s not particularly violent, and the killings, themselves, are mostly glossed over, with only a short-yet-bloody segment focusing on the LaBianca murders. The film also plays fast and loose with the facts. For example, Tex Watson, Manson’s “right hand man” who assisted in the LaBianca killings, is completely omitted, while other characters are repurposed to further the story. This isn’t, after all, a bio-pic, but, rather, a quasi-fictitious, darkly comic love story/fantasy that has more in common with the films of John Waters (who, ironically, denounced the film as he’s friends with Leslie Van Houten, although he hasn’t ever seen it) than a serial killer procedural. This is precisely what I loved about the film, and it’s also why I’m so afraid that changing the film’s title to lure in more sales will alienate its intended audience, thus depriving the film of the success it so truly deserves.
While Manson: My Name is Evil is not a perfect film (there are some pacing issues, and a few of the performances are cringe-inducing) it’s a great example of indie resourcefulness and a truly original and spirited take on a well-trodden subject. The lead actors are marvelous, Harkema’s direction is assured, and his script is inspired, making this an easy recommendation.
Note: This review is of a pre-release screener. As of this writing, supplemental materials and technical details are TBA. The film’s scheduled for release on October 12th, 2010.