THE MANSON FAMILY
Directed by Jim Van Bebber
Unrated two-disc special edition
Running Time: 253 Minutes
Yep, you read the running time right. Over four hours. You might think a movie that long would be a chore to watch. But The Manson Family is so fascinating û and so gripping when it takes off into its ultraviolent depiction of the murders û that this epic film actually seems to whiz by. But make no mistake about it: youÆre watching the ôGone With The Windö of slasher films. Van BebberÆs film is as complex and ambitious as it is graphic. Looking exactly like a late sixties/early seventies exploitation flick is only one of the many ways it realistically evokes the time and place it depicts.
Van BebberÆs strategy is to show what day to day life was like for Manson and company, at first lulling you into enjoying the sexy and trippy goings-on at the Spahn ranch as the relationships between the many characters in the situation develop. It almost seems like very well-done intimate home movies. You identify with the Family members at first, as theyÆre seduced into this seemingly liberating world of free love in beautiful rural surroundings. Part of Van BebberÆs agenda in taking this approach was to debunk prosecutor Vincent BugliosiÆs race-war theory of the case, as put forth in his book ôHelter Skelter.ö This film tries to give us what the family experienced, rather than the familiar news media version, with Charlie as a kind of bug-eyed Svengali directing a bunch of mindless robots. There were reasons why real people were attracted to the lifestyle at the Spahn ranch, and the movie starts out by showing us the seductive magic of the place and time.
Sometimes the camera cuts away from these events to documentary-style interviews conducted years later with the major characters, commenting on an event or conversation weÆve just seen û including a much older Tex Watson dressed in his new role of prison minister.
Tex Watson is actually the main character here, and we see a lot of the story through his eyes as he at first tries to resist MansonÆs gradually more and more controlling influence, then surrenders himself to CharlieÆs spell more completely than anyone. Then things start to get scarier and scarier psychologically, and when Tex and the girls get swept up into violence itÆs like an unstoppable tidal wave û shocking and overwhelming, but presented very matter-of-factly, a logical consequence of the seemingly everyday events that set the stage. One sign that things are spinning out of control happens during a huge nighttime orgy around a bonfire (according to the ômaking ofö documentary, this orgy was mostly but not entirely simulated). Tex has an acid hallucination and sees Charlie turn into the devil. He says, ôCharlie, I think weÆre in hell,ö and Charlie gleefully responds, ôYeah, ainÆt it groovy?ö The vision, of course, turns out to be prophetic. A black dog is also killed as a sacrifice during this scene.
The film depicts Gary HinmanÆs murder, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and û in flashback during a scene where differing versions of the story are told around a campfire at the ranch û the murder of Spahn ranch hand Shorty Shea. The murders are brutally graphic and very shocking. TheyÆre actually so unpleasant to watch that theyÆre too disturbing to be entertaining û they leave you feeling like youÆve been savagely smacked around. Which is kind of the point û in real life, violence isnÆt entertaining. ItÆs completely jarring, and awfully final. It has instant permanent consequences, and the power of that is an unsettling thing to see. And even when thereÆs a buildup beforehand it always seems impossibly sudden. Van Bebber manages to capture all this in a way few filmmakers have. Friday the 13th-style murders seem pathetically wimpy by comparison.
Having said that, I must add that many viewers will be disappointed that the camera shies away from showing much of Sharon TateÆs murder. The other murders are all depicted in graphic detail, but SharonÆs is mostly implied -- though she is the most famous victim. Van Bebber discusses his reasons for this in a documentary that is included as an extra. He drew the line because of the fact that she was pregnant, and because the details of her death are so well known. I think not showing her death is one of the few mistakes the film makes û and a big one at that. You canÆt help but feel a letdown because of it, and itÆs a distraction from the flow of the film.
ThereÆs also a kind of ôwrap-aroundö story involving a John Walsh-like TV journalist who wants to do an unflattering retrospective program on the family, and begins to get threats from a group of local punks who idolize Manson. ItÆs not a very big part of the film û but it does provide a dark, albeit somewhat predictable, resolution to this big, rambling movie. It would just be another tacked-on horror movie ending if not for the fact that itÆs obviously making a valid point of social commentary. I wonÆt ruin it by saying anything more about it.
All the acting in the film is excellent. Marcelo Gaimes is a handsomer but convincing Charlie, who plays a lesser part in the film than we expect him to û demonstrating that the film is really about ôThe Manson Familyö instead of centering on him, like most Manson films. (This decision was made because he left the film before it was finished, but it works). Mark Pitman does well as a complicated and conflicted Tex. Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse, and Amy Yates are suitably spacey and scary as the girls. Jim Van Bebber himself struts his stuff as the cocky Bobby Beausoleil, who claims Manson aspired to follow his example.
With this DVD we get all the footage cut from the considerably shorter theatrical version, plus some extras. The making-of documentary ôThe Van Bebber Familyö is one of the better efforts of its type IÆve ever seen, depicting the directorÆs amazingly long struggle to make his film (he began work on it in the late eighties, and it wasnÆt finished until 2003. At times he literally sold his blood to support the project). We also get ôIn The Belly Of The Beast,ö a documentary about the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. It looks like some of the indie films shown at the festival were interesting û among them ôA Gun For Jennifer,ö a movie in which strippers vengefully terrorize men. An earlier, rough-cut version of ôThe Manson Familyö was also shown at this festival. Other extras include a short prison interview with Manson (excerpted from ôCharles Manson Superstarö), and theatrical trailers.
You can order The Manson Family from www.darkskyfilms.com.