Manson Family, The (DVD)

Starring Marcelo Games, Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse

Directed by Jim VanBebber

Released by Dark Sky Films

Preceded by turbulent and frustrating production accounts like a trickle of water before an oncoming deluge, The Manson Family has finally creepy crawled its way to completion. It comes in the wake of a recent spin of serial killer biopics like Ed Gein, Dahmer, Gacy and even another made-for-TV Helter Skelter, all of which arrived on the scene to test the tolerance level and gag factor of those out there who like their entertainment laced with a varying degree of truth. But in that vein, you won’t see anything like VanBebber’s third feature effort which is a vivid, surreal time warp of a film seemingly exhumed from a time capsule stamped “1969” and slapped with a shaky wraparound story. It’s not a documentary, but a similar beast in a structural sense that intermingle dizzying flashbacks (for lack of a better word) with faux first person interviews from Manson family members (again, not the real ones). Being such a creation that aims its muzzle at the truth behind the sensational air that’s risen from the Manson case has allowed VanBebber to cut loose, to drag the subject matter to an extreme echelon of depraved sex and violence. And this is where Family draws most of its power – that “oomph” – the kind that opens your eyes (or cover them with a sweaty palm) to a side of Charlie’s posse you’ve only read about until now in history class.

From its birth, the film, in its roughest incarnations, had been publicly screened as Charlie’s Family. Since then it’s been renamed The Manson Family, a less inspired moniker to be sure, yet a fitting one. With the former title which uses the man’s first name, you get a sense Charlie plays a possessive correlation with the chain of events that unfold, which isn’t the case at all. Family is a peek beneath the rock. At the scattering bugs thriving beneath close to the mud and earth. It’s about the pulsating life on the Manson ranch; the persuasion, the drugs, the almost childish in-fighting, the music and, above all, the free spiritedness. But that was just the beginning. As time went on ideas of a race war flourished and mischievous operations were executed ultimately leading to bloodshed and the baffling Tate murders. Through VanBebber, we get a teasing depiction of Charles Manson. The crazy bastard (played with eerie dedication by Marcelo Games) is given the position of a performer who’s playing his song from behind a stage curtain, and his family is his audience sitting on the opposite side, each member telling us who they think the real Charles Manson is. None of them can agree on a solitary assessment, and truthfully, I don’t think any of them had any real clue. And through a colorful-as-an-oil slick filter we are treated to a peek at this mystification and pulled by our fingernails to the edge of the family’s uncontrolled rampage which VanBebber stages with a disturbing realism unseen on a scale like this since the ‘70s.

A large part of this authenticity falls on Family‘s technical aspects. The film stock looks as if it were run through an industrial sander; the camera is a free entity posing an opportunity for us to be the ultimate voyeurs looking in on a fevered world of orgies, acid trippin’ and bubbling, rampant blood flow; and the color scheme – working from a Luciano Tovoli-like palette of reds, purples, blues – when employed, removes any sense of fantasy from the killings and works to Family‘s nightmarish advantage. An additional plus is the cast who chomp at their roles voraciously. Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr and even VanBebber himself chisel their outlandish guises with sweat, sneers and wild-eyed vigor. The women of Manson’s family were a force of their own to reckon with – sexuality being their ultimate strength – and the actresses here all portray a convincing, unbreakable bond.

What literally breaks the flow of all of this, now, is a subplot set in ’96 concerning a television reporter delving into the Manson fascination. Unbeknownst to him, a new generation of “fans” has fallen for the misguided appeal of Charlie and plans to deal with this TV personality accordingly. VanBebber’s intent is understood but this narrative thread feels cut from another film.

The Manson Family is an unflinching attack, a method and style of filmmaking that parades around bare-chested, full of bravado and daring you to look it straight in the face and call it filth. It’s not, nor is it necessarily exploitation, although the “nekkid flesh” level is astounding. There’s nothing scarier than a movie of this type that has the guts to spill ‘em and have something to say in the process. What’s scarier is that Manson Family is based on truth. And what’s even freakier is that it’s truth as seen through VanBebber’s eyes.

The method behind the Family‘s madness is captured in the forthright The VanBebber Family (1h 16m), one of two more than decent documentaries available on MPI’s two-disc special edition DVD. Vanbebber forgoes the disc’s need for a commentary as director David Gregory scrapes up as many of those involved in the film as possible (“Charlie” actor Marcello Games is M.I.A.) to recall the palpable high energy that came from the production. Statements conflict over whether there was a script for Family at all and VanBebber was prone to directing in the buff to loosen up his similarly clothes-free actors. This connection to his performers and their appreciation of his gung-ho posture has a heavy presence throughout the docu’s interviews. Oh, and no one is shy about revealing how much influence drugs and alcohol played in some scenes. Woo hoo! Crazy hippie time!

In the Belly of the Beast (1h 13m) is Alex Chisholm’s bar/theatre lobby/hotel room-hopping experience of the Fantasia Film Festival, circa 1997. Sometimes painful, sometimes embarrassing and utterly “the way it is,” Chisholm’s effort selects a handful of filmmakers worthy of camera attention, all of them, of course, in attendance at the fest because they have a film being screened. VanBebber’s one of ‘em and so is Richard Stanley, director of Hardware, who’s lurking about because his cut of Dust Devil (a film originally abused by its distributor) is going to make its premiere. But Beast‘s real sob story comes from the makers of A Gun for Jennifer who learned that their financier had been embezzling money. Money that was being put into Jennifer; and when he bailed out, guess who was responsible for ponying up the cash to those it was taken from? That’s right, the director and producer.

For extra Charles Manson flavor, MPI has included an interview (10m 10s) with the real dude and has also thrown in a few film behind-the-scenes and production still galleries.

4 out of 5

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Jon Condit