Posted: 11/13/2004


The Manson Family


by Barry Meyer

See the real story through the eyes of The Manson Family. Offical site here.

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Charles Manson crashed into the American consciousness with a two-night bloody murder spree in the summer of ‘69, and he hasn’t gone away. To children he became the boogeyman who carried them away in their haunted dreams. To parents and grown-ups he personified their fear of a youthful generation that seemed reckless and over the edge. To the media and entertainment world he became a story, fodder for an endless pile of books, papers and movies. The bizarre and gruesome murders that were linked to Manson assured his place in history, but the insatiable curiosity directed at this little ex-con hippie turned him into a pop culture icon, whose mere name can provoke gasps of disgust and twitters of glee, all at once. The general perception of Manson is that he was — and still is — some kind of genius cult leader extraordinaire. Despite the fact he’s in prison, Manson still holds a magnetic grasp on some of the disenfranchised youth of today. For chrissakes, his face is on as many tee shirts as Che Guvera.

On the other hand — ask anyone who knows anything about the Manson Family, and they’ll likely say that they were just a bunch of whacked-out hippies who worshipped Manson with cult-like fervor and would do his bidding on the drop of a dime-bag - including murder.

Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family isn’t quite content enough to settle for that typical story. Van Bebber’s film explores this cast of hippie followers with more than just a fleeting glance, penetrating the psyche of these seemingly permissive flower children who converged upon the Spahn ranch with dreams of free love and mind blowing drugs. What he shows us is that the “family” members were not the cult followers they’d been perceived to be, nor were they the murderous crazies that have been depicted so often in the movies and on TV.

Van Bebber uses the focal character of Jack Wilson (Carl Day), a Geraldo-esque TV-tabloid reporter piecing together yet another Charles Manson story. But Wilson isn’t ready to accept the standardized idolization of this madman. “I’m sick of seeing Charlie,” Wilson tells an editor after seeing yet another Manson interview tape. “I want to hear from the ‘Family.’ That’s where the real story is.”

Under Van Bebber’s paintbrush, Manson is filled out with broad brush strokes - we already know who he is, so he allows our general knowledge to fill in the negative space. The finer strokes are left for the Family members, more expressly Tex, Patty and Sadie (Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr and Maureen Allisse respectively). Van Bebber displays the followers as individuals just as in charge of their own bleak future as Manson is of his own bleak future. Through “found interviews” for Wilson’s expose, the Family looks to Manson as the guy who can satiate their happy need for ready drugs and copious sex — and that’s about the extent of it. Manson seems to have been leader by default, because he was the right person at the right time who could give them all what they wanted. He didn’t control them so much as the sex and drugs did. And the glorification of Manson by his family amounted to drug-induced play, where they all dressed up and messed around with the idea that he was Christ, or something like that, dude…

But when the free love got boring within their little group, and the ready drugs got more and more scarce, the kids got a little desperate and frenzied, resorting to rape and drug scams. Through the interviews and action, it’s revealed that Manson didn’t really control these desperate acts, he just lorded over the natural process of their devious behavior. He didn’t dictate the legendary great “race war” that all the movies and books claim, rather the “plan” was a hackneyed afterthought, a case of braggadocio, that resulted from a botched killing of a black drug supplier who was hip to Manson’s transparent scams. Manson was just a con man who had quickly run out of options, and clout. The 2-nights-of-murder was yet another scam for money, not a stab (sorry) at world domination. Manson turned out to be less a cult leader or an architect of some grand scheme. He was more a meager opportunist than anything else.

Sure, the remake of Helter Skelter is a more polished product, but it didn’t offer much besides a cool performance from Jeremy Davies. However, Family offers a more refreshing look, thanks to some smart writing and some very inspired performances from the entire cast — especially from Orr as the insanely adorable but deadly Patty. The mish-mosh of digitally scratched film, washed out colors, and sparse camerawork resembled something like a low-budget 60s Herschel Gordon Lewis flick (the buckets of blood reflected Lewis, as well), which is half the fun of Family.

Barry Meyer is a writer living in Jersey who worships tee-shirts bearing images of Spam.

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