Manson’s Lost Girls

| May 10, 2016

It’s no secret that the made-for-TV movie format is one that I enjoy more than most folks do. Hell, I wrote my thesis on Marvel’s TV movies and even teach sections on TV movies in two of my classes! The history of the format is absolutely fascinating, and the importance of the TV movie in the history of television’s development cannot be understated. Though TV movies in the network era flourished and drew in massive ratings for the three core networks, nowadays TV movies are almost exclusively the purview of cable networks, being an easy and spectacular way for a burgeoning network to brand itself.

When I ask my students what they think of when they hear the term “made-for-TV movie,” they’ll often cite Disney TV movies they grew up with or go straight to Sharknado. Eventually, though, someone will shout out the name of the network that we’ve come to most associate with the format in the modern era: Lifetime. TV movies flourish on Lifetime in ways they haven’t on network television in some 30 years. Sure, what we hear about most with regard to Lifetime’s output are the women in danger pictures that receive so much ire in academic circles, and rightly so. This is not to say they don’t put out anything worthwhile, though, especially when you look at their comedies like Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014) and the Will Ferrell/Kristen Wiig pseudo-parody A Deadly Adoption (2015). Plus, their patently sappy holiday movies are a staple in my household—so much so that the Lifetime Presents: 12 Days of Christmas boxset sits on my shelf today!

For these reasons, I was dying to get my hands on a copy of Lifetime’s Manson’s Lost Girls (2016) when it hit DVD and Digital this week from Lionsgate. Manson’s Lost Girls revisits the 1969 Tate-Labianca murders perpetrated by the Manson family 40 years after CBS aired the made-for-TV Helter Skelter back in 1976. Helter Skelter is, of course, the seminal TV movie about the case, starring Steve Railsback as Charles Manson in what I can safely say is the most stirring performance I’ve ever seen from the man (seriously, look it up!). The movie was so popular when it aired in ’76 that it would go on to be listed among the all-time highest feature-length ratings earners on network television. And that’s including theatrically-released features that were later shown on television! So Manson’s Lost Girls had a lot to live up to.

How does Manson’s Lost Girls fair by comparison? Surprisingly well, in fact, especially when you consider it’s less than half the length of Helter Skelter, which clocks in at over three hours. Plus, I’ve actually spent a lot of time studying the Tate-Labianca murders, given one of my oldest friends’ fascination with the case and the fact that I listen to the You Must Remember This podcast, which devoted an entire season to Manson’s Hollywood. So I can honestly I didn’t spot any glaring inconsistencies between Manson’s Lost Girls and the real world events as related by any number of the people involved over the years. Granted, I’m no expert, but I was surprised to find only a couple bits of dialogue stand out to me, as I pointed out to my wife that the real life equivalent of one character or another probably wouldn’t have known about a certain event as well as the fact that the murders, as discussed by the murderers themselves, didn’t quite play out as they’re depicted in the movie. Someone more dedicated than I could, I’m sure, point to problems that completely escaped my attention (and please do so in the comments if you happen to be an expert on the subject). Still, I think the movie does a fine job of providing audiences with a cursory glance at the Manson family’s operations leading up to the “Trial of the Century.”

One thing Manson’s Lost Girls does a particularly fine job of is showing how someone as clearly unhinged as Manson could amass such a shockingly large group of followers as he did. Told from the perspective of Manson girl Linda Kasabian, Manson’s Lost Girls shows Charles Manson at his manipulative best/worst, drawing out people’s insecurities and playing them against the person until they’re brainwashed to follow his every command. Sure, the most shockingly degrading stuff he put the girls through isn’t in the movie, nor do any of the folks on Spahn Ranch look as dirty or malnourished as they are reported to have been. But it’s, again, a fine introduction.

If I were to levy any major complaints against the movie, though, they would be rooted first in the totally superfluous voiceover narration and second in the glamorization of the Manson Family and their activities. Now, I’m not saying the Family didn’t enjoy the parties they went to or even the orgies we knew they frequently engaged in. But again, all the performers are shockingly clean, and the actresses beautiful to boot. Couple that with the surprising number of sex and dancing montages that clutter up the running time and the movie makes being a member of the Family look pretty damn glamorous apart from the whole crime/murder thing. And that’s a problematic message to be disseminating if I’ve ever heard one!

Still, Manson’s Lost Girls is definitely worth a look if you’re either into the TV movie format as I or you’re simply looking for an introduction into the history of the Manson Family. And of course, if you can’t catch it in reruns, the film is now available on DVD and Digital from Lionsgate.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: TV on DVD
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