On Thursday, May 17th, 2018 at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (held at the Horse Hospital in London), Ian Cooper will be holding a class entitled No Sense Makes Sense: Gurus, Cults, Murder and Movies. Examining the cinematic depictions of infamous Californian cults such as those led by Charles Manson and the Reverend Jim Jones, with an emphasis on the more exploitable titles that were churned out by independent filmmakers to cash-in on the tragedies, No Sense Makes Sense will also take in movies that were clearly influenced by the cultural climate and fear which these crimes generated, such as Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1969) and John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs (1970).
I recently had the chance to ask Ian Cooper, a German-based author whose book Family Values: The Manson Family on Film and TV is scheduled to be published by McFarland later this year, a few questions ahead of his Miskatonic Institute class.
Diabolique: What do you feel is the main reason for the continued fascination with Charles Manson and the Manson Family killings? Do you think it is something that is irrevocably tied to the era in which they occurred – the juxtaposition of peace and love with bloody murder?
Ian Cooper: The era is definitely part of it, this shift from the utopian idealism of the Summer of Love to Altamont, Kent State and Manson. But the case also features so many elements which are still talking points today – Hollywood, celebrity, terrifying violence, drugs, race. Also, most murderers turn out to be quite dull – truck drivers, drifters, classic little men with delusions of grandeur – but Manson gave great villain and was seemingly happy to take on the role of icon of evil. He was quotable, he had those eyes (and later that tattoo) and he possessed a kind of dark glamour. He was also capable of being portrayed as all things to all (wo)men, messiah, class warrior, mad man, anti-drug poster boy…
Diabolique: How do you think the depiction of Manson is likely to change now that he is deceased? I have always felt that a large part of the public’s fascination with Manson was due to the fact that he was still alive, after cheating the death penalty, and had a strange air of omnipotency about him.
Ian Cooper: I think you’re right to some degree, he was this like this Colonel Kurtz figure, always lurking out there. But after the state of California banned jailhouse recordings in the mid-90s, there was a paucity of new Manson footage so he was already less visible. The internet seems to have boosted the profile of the Family, lots of online documents and photos, old interviews on YouTube and what prosecutor Stephen Kay has dubbed ´Give-Charlie-a-Chance websites`. I think as the news media loses interest now Manson’s dead, this web presence will only grow.
Diabolique: Where does your own interest in Manson stem from?
Ian Cooper: A friend lent me a copy of Ed Sanders´ book, The Family when we were still at school. I was into anarchist punk and horror films, so the mixture of alternative lifestyle and bloody murder really spoke to me. I´m interested in a few crimes and yet the Manson story has so many rabbit holes – the weird cast of characters, the loose ends, the ongoing debate over motive even after all these years – it’s still fascinating.
Diabolique: Tell us about your upcoming lecture at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and the range of topics and films it will cover.
Ian Cooper: It’s a look at cults in California and the films they’ve inspired. It’s focused mainly on The Family, partly because of their infamy and the appeal they had (and continue to have) for film-makers but there´ll also be some discussion of Jim Jones and The People’s Temple. I want to talk about why the West Coast spawned so many cults, gurus and the like, the factors that led to the cult boom in the 60s and the enduring appeal of the Manson story to film-makers, a large number of whom were churning out low-budget exploitation fare.
I’m going to look at the first wave of ´Mansonsploitation`, films like Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Sweet Savior (1971), the horror films like The Last House on the Left (1971) and its imitators and some of the weird fringe items like Manson Family Movies (1984) and Live Freaky, Die Freaky (2006).
Diabolique: What do you personally feel are the best or most interesting films that were based on, or clearly inspired by, the Manson case?
Ian Cooper: The Other Side of Madness (1971), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Todd Killings (1971) Last House on Dead End Street (1977) and The Manson Family (1997) are all great. Manson Family Vacation (2015) is definitely the sweetest Family film and Manson (1973) is invaluable, seeing as we get to see the Family speak for themselves.
Diabolique: How do you respond to criticism that it is in bad taste to turn infamous crimes, such as those committed by the Manson Family or the mass cult suicides at Jonestown, into films for entertainment purposes? Should any subject be ripe for exploitation?
Ian Cooper: Well, it is in pretty bad taste turning murder into entertainment and yet it’s only natural for artists to want to explore real-life subjects. Personally I don’t think making a film about a tragedy is any different to writing a news story about it. Obviously there’s a lot to be offended about in a film like Live Freaky, Die Freaky (2006) for example but then that’s the point, it’s intended to shock, upset or annoy people. It’s not for everyone but what is? To answer the second part of your question, I don’t think there’s anything which can’t be explored and if it can be explored, it can be exploited. The only real difference between Schindler’s List (1993) and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) is tone, otherwise they’re both films about the Holocaust.