Written and Directed by: Jim Van Bebber
Starring: Marcelo Games, Marc Pitman, and Leslie Orr
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďOf course I loved Charlie. I felt like he was the Messiah come again."
Thereís no explanation for pure, unadulterated evil. Itís a form of chaos that seemingly exists only to confound and horrify. When faced with one of the its more inexplicable instances, Jim Van Beeber rightfully refuses to come to an understanding with The Mason Family; instead, his film (which became something of a fifteen year odyssey of staring into this abyss) seeks to only capture a deranged, shared psychosis that resulted in one of the 20th centuryís most infamous and heinous episodes. This is the Manson Family as they might understand themselves, which is to say they remain impenetrable agents of chaos to us.
Van Bebber aggressively refuses pop psychology by wryly mocking such an approach. He frames film as a false documentary thatís in the process of being cobbled together by a television producer (Carl Day) looking to create a 25th anniversary retrospective for his show, Crime Scene (the device would recall Natural Born Killers had Van Bebber not began his efforts in 1988). As the producer cobbles his footage together, viewers are dropped down a demented rabbit hole of recollections from the now incarcerated Manson Family (portrayed by a troupe of Van Bebberís associates), who paint a twisted portrait of the environment that eventually spawned the rash of murders that put them behind bars.
The result is a shaggy but vibrant crazy quilt thatís just a layer removed from reality: a pseudo-documentary, faux-snuff film, and a virtual replication of what the familyís own home movies may have looked like. Van Bebberís unifying thread is a purely 70s drive-in or grindhouse aesthetic, complete with scuzzy print damage and discoloration. Denying its effect is difficult, as The Manson Family feels like an episode of a sensationalist crime show by way of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Itís sort of like Charles Pierceís penchant for docudrama supercharged by Oliver Stoneís hyperkinetic editing. Recapturing this 70s quality has been all the rage during the past few years, but Van Bebber nailed it about as effectively as anyone years before Grindhouse crystalized the movement.
Thereís also an obvious temptation to refer to it as an acid trip, which would be clichť, obvious, and a bit misguided. For its sheer, chaotic lunacy, the film is remarkably coherent and more or less proceeds in chronological order. Early passages reveal how the family came under the spell of its charismatic leader and formed a commune on the land of an unwitting farmer, where their activities escalate from Bacchanalian orgies to Satanic rituals featuring animal sacrifice. Even before their activities take an overtly sinister turn, the proceedings provide a consistently disturbing peek into an unreal scene made all the more unbelievable by its participantsí voiceovers. Their recollections range from banal to laughably grandiose rants that attempt to justify their actions (save for the handful who seem genuinely contrite). Viewers remain a step removed from it all; while the film is undeniably unflinching and unsettling on a visceral level, theyíll gain no insight into how a madman could coerce an entire group of people into worshipping his divinity (appropriately enough, heís paradoxically presented as both Christ and Satan all at once).
The Manson Family obviously climaxes with the groupís most infamous and gruesome exploits, a series of brutal slayings whose victims included actress Sharon Tate (here portrayed by Tina Martin). Van Bebber achieves a rare level of savagery here thatís genuinely disquieting. I hope to never be in a position to confirm it, but I imagine he adequately captures the brutality of a violent death. His camerawork falls somewhere between roughshod and preciseóthereís obviously a frenzy to it, but he keys in on the cruel, almost casual disdain these psychopaths felt towards their victims. One Manson follower relentlessly stabs away at a body like he would a slab of beef in a sequence thatís hard to shake. Itís the action of a man completely outside of his body, yet fully committed to carrying out his leaderís command. Like nearly every other aspect of the film, this doesnít bring you any closer to any sort of insight regarding these eventsóitís simply presented in all of its ugliness and sheer unfathomability.
Never does it feel like a dry, by-the-numbers recounting either. By most measures of logic, The Manson Family has no right to be as effective as it is given its bizarre production history that saw Van Bebber begin the project in 1988 and toil away on it over the course of a decade. Eventually, Blue Underground provided the funding for its completion in 2003, at which point it was fully unleashed on audiences (Van Bebber had played unfinished versions at film festivals for years, though). The final product is remarkable in that the history isnít all that noticeable; it helps thatís such a jumbled, elliptical collage, but Van Bebber is engaged in controlled chaos here. The Manson Family is definitely a patchwork, albeit one thatís well-stitched and nearly seamless. Some of its threadsósuch as the frame storyís introduction of a band of modern Mansonitesófeel a little too indulgent and obvious, but thereís a unity in the sheer, unfiltered brand of cock-eyed insanity from beginning to end.
Even the inexperienced castsí performances are quite solid. As the title implies, Manson himself takes a bit of a backseat to the family itself, but Marcelo Gamesís turn as the enigmatic ringleader is noteworthy. With his bearded countenance and disheveled long hair, he serves as an adequate physical doppelganger. However, Games also captures Mansonís beady-eyed menace without trying to overpower the proceedings; in fact, Manson is weirdly deflated whenever he does appear and mostly comes off as a diminutive little shit-kicker with a Messiah complex, which might be the closest Van Bebber comes to casting judgment on anything here. Manson himself does only stand at about 5í6Ē, so itís an accurate reflection that seems to be intentionally emphasized when heís on screen (itís particularly noticeable during the scene where he murders a drug dealer) in an effort to heighten the absurdity. When the film concludes, youíll be left wondering just how this guy managed to coerce these followers into believing an assortment of outlandish claims.
Van Bebber also seems to be a bit aware of the Manson ordeal as a twisted, concluding chapter that closed the book on the 60s. His script makes some obvious references to this, and the filmís first half plays out as a nightmarish distortion of the hippie ideal. Even as we witness a throng of Mansonís followers engaging in communal sex, weíre a long way from the Summer of Love, especially when they turn to rape (with a baby in attendance, no less). America had already been pushed over the precipice this point, and, through this especially hellish episode, Van Bebber finds a microcosm that butchers an idyllic scene and drags it straight into the next decade in terms of aesthetics. If not for the modern framing, one could easily imagine The Manson Family hitting drive-in circuits and sleazy grindhouse dives in the early 70s, where it would have functioned as both a wake for the previous decadeís counter-culture and a prescient omen for its re-appropriation in the years to come. One of the filmís strangest moments comes towards the end, where one of the modern acolytes wears a shirt emblazoned with Mansonís likeness, which is disturbing and depressing for various reasons. Not even Charlie Manson could avoid becoming a commodity.
Speaking of commodities, The Manson Family can now be consumed in various ways, but Severinís most recent 10th Anniversary DVD/Blu-ray offering stands as a definitive release that features an unbelievably vibrant presentation. The film itself takes on an intentionally authentic, grungy look thatís faithfully replicated by a transfer that handles the filmís various visual modes quite well. Severin has also provided both a lossless 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track along with the original (and I suspect more faithful) 2.0 surround track, and the former is more impressive than one might expect since Van Bebberís sound design is quite absorbing and adds to the filmís cacophonous nature. This disc carries over all of the extras from the previous DVD release, including The Van Bebber Family, a feature-length documentary that covers the filmís storied production. Another documentary, In The Belly of the Beast, takes a look at the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival (one of Van Bebberís various tour stops on the way to the filmís completion), while interviews with Manson himself, some deleted scenes, and a commentary with Van Bebber round out the carryovers. New features include an interview with Pantera front-man Phil Anselmo (who provides the voice of Satan during a particularly unhinged sequence) and Van Bebberís latest effort, Gator Green, a short film that represents his first output in a decade. Letís hope he doesnít take another lengthy hiatus because The Manson Family reveals a talented provocateur with something to say--even when the subject matter defies explanation. Buy it!
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