Already something of an underground legend, Jim Van Bebber’s “The Manson Family” has been among the most widely seen “unreleased” films for years, with tapes circulating and rare public screenings of various workprint edits under the title “Charlie’s Family.” Primary footage was shot as early as 1988; just last year, cult DVD distrib Blue Underground kicked in completion money, amid dark rumors of the writer/helmer’s whereabouts. Its own mythology aside, this flamboyant, graphic and disturbing quasi-docu reenactment of a notorious chapter in U.S. counterculture life is a fascinating if peculiar accomplishment that merits consideration from resourceful arthouse distribs.
Midwesterner Van Bebber completed just one prior feature, ’88 cult fave “Deadbeat at Dawn,” before embarking on this magnum opus. Its perpetually stalled completion gave him time to direct some memorable shorts (“My Sweet Satan”) as well as musicvideos for extreme industrial/punk bands. “The Manson Family” transcends even that envelope-pushing resume to offer an extraordinary mix of historical imagining with late-’60s/early-’70s subtle parody of film styles, ridicule of that era’s quasi-spiritual hedonism and genuine horror at the Manson Family’s psychotic violence.
Framing device has a veteran TV news reporter (Carl Day) in 1996 assembling an anniversary look back at the saga of long-since-imprisoned Charles Manson and his followers, which had culminated in the home-invasion murders of actress Sharon Tate among others. Newsman’s musings provide excuse for flashbacks to the high hippie era, some of them ostensible archival clips (splotched, color-faded and distressed with “age”), others making the full leap into dramatization.
Whirlwind overview of the Family’s origins up through fateful 1969 make note of then 33-year-old Charlie’s lengthy history of institutionalization; his aborted musical aspirations (some original Manson songs are featured on soundtrack); the floating community’s brief stay with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and longer one at the Spahn Ranch; their survival by dumpster-diving, pulling minor cons, quieting debtors with free hippie-chick love. At first, everyone seems in it just for the plentiful sex and drugs.
Character scroll is cluttered by the easy-come, easy-go (at least for a while) nature of communal life. Aptly, Manson (Marcelo Games) is a somewhat shadowy figure here. He occasionally demonstrates the magnetism credited him, but more often seems tantrum-prone, almost imbecilic.
Mood within the clan darkens post-Summer of Love, as did that of the counterculture and the nation as a whole. A potential recording deal goes sour; negative vibes of the Beatles’ “White Album” are taken as a sign of impending class/race-war.
Van Bebber lines up a series of harrowing set pieces: A virginal visitor to the ranch is drugged then gang-raped; middle-class homes are invaded; a ripped-off drug dealer is shot. Sun-struck orgiastic sex has become violent, Dionysian, faux-ritualistic.
Charlie has flunkies shake down a Family sympathizer he mistakenly believes is hiding a fortune; they kill the guy, and one participant, Bobby (Van Bebber) is arrested.
The climactic Tate/LaBianca murders, planned to cast suspicion the Black Panthers(!), are depicted in horribly vivid and sadistic fashion, with the by-now-certifiably unhinged Family members deriving a gleeful new “high” from the prolonged agonies of their terrified victims.
That violence could pose ratings problems — even more so the film’s considerable dose of full-frontal nudity (though its effect is hardly erotic). But then envelope-pushing “Charlie’s Family” — and its audience — would likely embrace unrated status as a badge of honor.
Only real flaw is the story frame, which always seems forced — particularly when advance publicity for the newsman’s Manson “special report” attracts attention from a quartet of punks who decide to stalk and kill him. Suggestion that Manson’s “evil lives on” via a new generation of fictive freaks is both ham-fisted and vague.
Nonetheless, feature’s bulk is so striking that this hardly matters. Not everyone will appreciate “The Manson Family” (a strong stomach plus knowledge of both the actual events and the vintage shlock cinema Van Bebber subtly mimics and parodies here will help), but it’s hard to imagine anyone finding the pic forgettable.
Occasional amateurish edge to perfs is probably intentional, and in any case seems just right — anyone who’s seen the real Manson Family in their original courthouse interviews will find their mix of childishness and fearsome intensity eerily mirrored here.
Transferred to 35mm at last, pic looks great on the bigscreen, with Van Bebber’s mix of commercial and experimental aesthetics providing constant stimulus. Sound design is, if anything, even more complex a collage than the visual presentation.