The Manson Family (2003)

Dir: Jim VanBebber

We start in 1996 with documentary film maker and ‘real crime’ show host Jack Wilson (genuine ‘News Anchor’ Carl Day) starting work on a show about the Manson case via the, at the time, kids who actually carried out the brutal slayings instead of Manson (Marcelo Games) himself.

As Jack and a colleague look at the interview footage of the sentenced Manson Family members, Leslie (Amy Yates), Bobby (VanBebber), Sadie (Maureen Allisse), Patty (Leslie Orr) and Tex Watson (Van Bebber regular Marc Pitman) little do they know that a modern day Manson Cult is stalking them.

As we see and hear the accounts of what led to the infamous murders of Sharon Tate (pregnant Wife of Roman Polanski) and her friends, on that Beverly Hills night in 1969, we also earn more about those that did the murders and the man that led them in their mania …while all the time a new breed of would-be murderers make their plans….

Few films have had such a hard and trouble strewn path to completion than Jim VanBebber’s “The Manson Family”.
After the huge cult following that Jim’s “Deadbeat at Dawn” (1988) gathered all seemed to be going well for VanBebber and his friends and when news that he was going to tackle the world famous Manson case broke the entire cult movie fandom waited in sweaty anticipation. It was to be a long wait.
With funding almost constantly falling through VanBebber’s film (at least what he had managed to shoot) seemed to be in limbo. Further funding breakthroughs would allow a bit more filming before they to vanished into the ether, and soon, after countless rumours, less than hopeful genre articles and conflicting reports on what actually existed on film it looked like “Charlie’s Family” (as it was then called) was never going to be.
1994 saw VanBebber crawl back into the spotlight with two very different but equally graphic shorts “The Last Days of John Martin” and the far more successful “My Sweet Satan”. VanBebber wanted “Satan” to show potential investors what he could do.
By 1995 Jim had a very rough, rough cut (which at least helped remind people about the film when the odd article crept out about the print in the genre press) and in 1997 a ‘work in progress’ print finally saw the movie get an official public screening at the Indy film, underground/horror festival, ‘FanTasia’ in Montreal. Feedback was positive and possible funding to finally finish the film looked to be forthcoming. In the end, yet again, nothing happened.

On top of that Marcelo Games, Manson himself, had dropped out of the project completely!
VanBebber’s famous alcohol fuelled outbursts became worse, and more widely reported, and he was literally selling his blood (to plasma banks) to get money.
The great Phil Anselmo (from rock group ‘Pantera‘) gave VanBebber an artistic lifeline when he hired Jim to film videos for his non-’Pantera’ projects like “Necrophagia” (he would later provide much of the finished movie‘s soundtrack as well), as did Industrial/Rock/Noise group ‘Skinny Puppy’.
Then, in 2003 the Brits came to the financial rescue in the form of Carl Daft and David Gregory from cult DVD/film company ‘Blue Underground’, who finally ensued the movie had the financing to get the final editing done, the picture itself restored and even a new (and excellent) Dolby 5:1 and DTS soundtrack was added.
At last, at long long last, “The Manson Family” (as it had become) was finished and set for a proper release. The road had been long and hard but the final product (and VanBebber’s dedication) was most certainly worth it.

When, after that almighty struggle, the movie was released it basically got a lot of negative press from the mainstream (surprisingly a rare semi-positive voice came from Roger Ebert of all people) but more surprisingly it got a lot of criticism from many horror fans.
I think this is because the film does not turn (nudity/sex and the odd bloody ritual aside) explicit or horrific until an hour in. Very much the opposite of Van Bebber’s other works.

This is because Van Bebber is genuinely doing a serious look at ‘The Family‘, the mindset of the followers (especially the murderers), their hedonistic (but sadly polluted) lifestyle and the psychologically chaotic lead-up to the infamous ‘Tate Murders’.
This not a bad thing, or a wrong thing, and Van Bebber should not be criticised for individual viewer’s expectation of what they thought the film was going to be.
It is perhaps a bit too detailed about certain minor events in this lead-up, as the film does seem to fly off in all directions and seems a tiny bit long-winded at times.
But this is a small complaint to what is in general a truly brilliant enterprise (especially given the film’s troubled as hell production history) at attempting to get as real as possible with the ‘Manson Myth’, even when showing conflicting reports of events where a Family member’s recollection does not go along with the official reports or, more fascinatingly, does not go along with the recollections of other Family members. It’s a solid and brave reconstruction of a truly warped and conflicted case.

During these sequences we are shown the lifestyle of 'The Family' and their sometimes conflicted and even aggressive relationships with each other as well as with other society drop-outs, like the lethal racial conflict with Black militants Lotsapoppa (Don Keaton).
Basically, instead of the hippie Family of all-togetherness Van Bebber shows us a far more dysfunctional Family to say the least.
Via the expertly crated and re-created interviews we discover the conflicting opinions on Manson himself as well, differing views on what ‘the struggle’ was all about as well as the actual mistrust and even dislike of Manson by Tex Watson.

While we follow The Family at ‘The Ranch’ VanBebber shows us the sexually charged existence of the group with plenty of vigorous, as well as lethargic, sex in pools, waterfalls, barns and fields as well as the occasional musical get-together. And when not screwing, getting high or dropping acid they are listening to Manson’s skewed philosophy on society and it’s ills.

The main Family ‘sex’ sequence is a superbly realised, blood covered (from a sacrificed dog, taken from an account in Ed Sandors’s book on Manson) , fire-lit orgy sequence before the murder spree and it’s suitably wild, explicit and bizarre sequence. The accounts of real sex happening during the filming of this sequence is very much believable, and throughout the movie VanBebber (and his cast) never shy away from full frontal nudity.
Away from the sex though Jim also takes us to places rarely (if ever) covered in other Manson films, such as the studio recordings of Charlie’s (actually pretty damn good) folk songs.

The main bulk of the film is shot in 16mm and 35mm and looks great and is generally conventional in its look (though often wild and distorted) from a technical standpoint, but for the interviews, the Family home movies and the news reports various film styles are used (some well crafted scratched, lined and grainy video and 8mm footage) to add a genuinely authentic feel to these sequences.

Throughout the film VanBebber charges the experience with the use of drawings, freeze frame pictures, erratic editing and even reversed film and he pulls off the hard feat of managing to not make the film annoying and trying on the audiences patience, even when extreme Satanic hallucinatory images rip across the screen. It shares much with the way Oliver Stone shot “Natural Born Killers” in some aspects, and is just as effective.
The use of Phil Anselmo’s songs, Manson’s songs and classical music is also very well utilised and once again gives the film a lyrical as well as hammering and intense feel.
As mentioned the interview footage with the accused Family members (from ‘69 and ‘96) looks wonderfully authentic in the way they look, sound and are acted. In fact it is to the credit of all the actors (a pseudo-Brit interviewer aside, who is over the top) that they really manage to make this feel so real.

Leslie Orr is especially intense as Patty and her character is given some of the most effective speeches (or you could say rants) in the movie. And it will come as no surprise that dialogue about Manson himself is full of things like “He is God! Why do you think they’re sending him to the gas chamber”.

The main fault I found with the movie is that the reasoning and build-up, specifically to the ‘Tate Murders’, is really shadowed and generally skipped over character-wise. The murder sequences seem to almost pop up from nowhere in the end, especially in the involvement of Tex who has been shown as generally cynical throughout the rest of the film.
The victims themselves are also thrown into the film without any build-up, either visually or in dialogue, and in fact if you did not already know who the people killed were you would have no idea of their identities as they are never named or given any screen time outside of their deaths.

The murders themselves are indeed shown in all their explicit detail for the most part (VanBebber leaves much of the Tate‘s gruesome death off -screen), and some effective FX work ensures that for the first time we actually see what dying from multiple stab wounds really means. It’s brutal, ruthless, as bloody as hell and it has to be said…honest.

The very nature of what is shown during the deaths means that there is never any glorification of the acts or the people that carried them out and the explicit, cruel reconstructions ensure that any potential ‘mythic’ possibilities are killed at birth. In fact VanBebber has gone on record as saying that he has no empathy for Manson and what his followers did. These were disgusting acts carried out on innocent people by maniacs, and Jim never says any different with the way he films these acts.

The greatest success of the film is actually that of the generally almost forgotten deaths of the LaBianca’s later that night (which have become almost an afterthought due to the ‘fame’ of the ‘Tate Murders’) which are covered in truly horrific detail and in fact their deaths are the hardest to watch of all, the brutal, sadisti, c multiple stab wound demise of Mrs LaBianca (even to the grotesque desecration of her body by uncovering, and then stabbing, her naked buttocks) is in fact by far the most explicit and uncomfortable death in the whole film. And that's of course exactly as it should be, and it makes us feel exactly like we are meant to feel...shocked and sickened.

The aftermath of the murders is basically ignored (the interviews aside of course) but I guess VanBebber was more concerned that the bulk of his movie concentrated on the actual events more than their cultural (and oh so complicated and hypocritical) effect on society, and only the forced ‘96 footage covers any real influence.
More later on that,
Manson himself is almost forgotten during the last part of the movie in fact! He only has a small amount of screen time as VanBebber, like his fictional Jack Wilson, decides to concentrate on ‘the kids’ rather than their ‘spiritual’ Guru, and it's this that actually makes the film so effective and different. And as it is Marcelo Games’s performance as Manson is excellent.

As mentioned, the 1996 story (the Jack Wilson scenes aside) is perhaps a move too far ( it has even split the cast, who were not involved in this later addition) and distracts from the well crafted reality of the real-life events as Van Bebber throws in some ‘fucked up cult kids’ fiction (scenes of two men and two women, naked and tattooed in a cellar are edited into the films main structure as they make preparations) that seems to exist solely to make the point that Charlie’s influence and mania still resonates with today’s messed up youth.

But it seems forced and frankly false as today’s disaffected fuck-ups have many more relevant anti-heroes to idolise than Manson, who is now not much more than a fascinating (and he is a fascinating man if you've ever heard him speak) relic of a forgotten time. And even the fact that this whole sequence is based on reality (the murder in 1977 of Laurence Merrick, the Producer of TV documentary “Manson”) it still comes across as an unlikely event, and as such it would have worked better if set in ‘77 and not ‘96, but I’m sure VanBebber would then say it would have then lacked a connection with modern youth underground culture. Whatever the rights or wrongs of this footage though it does seem tagged on and is certainly not as powerful or realistic as the Manson segments.

But ultimately, despite it’s generally minor faults, “The Manson Family” (and indeed his entire back-catalogue) shows that Jim VanBebber is one of the best damn, in your face, no nonsense, truly dedicated, authentic and brutally effective film makers around today.
And he is definitely one of the few directors (the very, very few directors) to capture that glorious 70’s Grindhouse aesthetic.
Basically, all hail Big Jim Van Bebber! He has his faults, troubles and contradictions (as we all do) but he is also someone deserving of support and admiration and should be damn well cherished by all fans of extreme underground cinema.