The vicious murders of Sharon Tate, Leno LaBianca and Rosemary LaBianca in 1969 are among the most notorious in American history. This is due not only to the high profile of the pregnant victim Tate, a budding Hollywood star and wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, but also because the crimes were orchestrated by the charismatic, manipulative and, some would say, evil cult leader Charles Manson. Manson and members of his “family” were convicted of those crimes decades ago, yet the reverberation of those cruel acts is evident even today, especially as the enigmatic figure still resides in Corcoran State Prison in California.
James Van Bebber’s The Manson Family (aka Charlie’s Family) is the eccentric filmmaker’s celluloid recreation of that historic tragedy, and is an uncompromising work that gives the viewer a glimpse into the culture during that tumultuous period of time. It’s also a look at Manson’s lasting influence on media and pop culture, told through the eyes of those who followed him into his, and their own, destruction. To commemorate the shocking film’s tenth anniversary, Severin Films has released an exceptional 2-Disc Blu-ray set replete with a host of special features to supplement the disturbing experience. Fans of the film, or even those discovering it for the first time, will find plenty of fascinating material to ingest along with the film’s psychedelic visions of hell.
Part fictional narrative, part pseudo-documentary, The Manson Family is a film composed of juxtaposed images and ideas designed to convey the contradictory conditions responsible for the group’s genesis under the auspices of a peace-loving commune. This is clear from the outset as an opening montage contrasts images of lovely flowers and an American flag proudly blowing in the wind with jarring images of blood splattering over those same symbols. This is set to a soundtrack of folk music and static chatter from what could be either a police or military radio transmission. It’s an opening that perfectly encapsulates the descent into vicious horror about to be experienced by the viewer.
Rather than sensationalize the messianic Manson (portrayed by Marcello Games), Van Bebber (Deadbeat by Dawn) offers an intimate look at the members of the cult. It’s evident that Van Bebber’s intent was to offer varying viewpoints in shaping the story, perspectives ranging from the immediately devout Sadie Atkins (Maureen Allisse), the sadistic enforcer Bobby Beausoleil (Van Bebber) to the initially skeptical Tex Watson (Marc Pittman) who inevitably became one the most vicious members of the family. In dissecting the life-cycle of this deadly cult—from roots as peace-loving hippies to their descent into ruthless, remorseless killers—Van Bebber provides the tools for analyzing the reasons—however insane—Manson could command his followers to slaughter innocent people. Through Van Bebber’s imposing lens, the viewer will cavort in orgies of sex and blood right alongside the players as Manson’s family members ruminate on the experiences.
Van Bebber also adds an interesting fictional story arc involving a Geraldo Rivera-like, Manson-obsessed sensationalist journalist named Jack Wilson (Carl Day) being stalked by a gang of neo-Manson worshipers. Wilson—who collects Manson memorabilia—doesn’t realize he’s just as fixated on Manson as the Manson worshipers sending him ominous threats via mail. It’s an intriguing element of the film, and a great commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture, as well as the blatant hypocrisy on display in turn. It renders those who consume all things Manson implicit in his crimes, a point Van Bebber was obviously trying to make.
Shooting over a decade of financial and scheduling starts and stops, Van Bebber uses a combination of 16mm film stock and mock interviews shot on analog video. Though the look is disparate, Van Bebber manages to blend them seamlessly to account for changes in characters’ appearance due to the passage of time. Van Bebber’s utilization of a grindhouse-era aesthetic lends a suitably grimy quality to the images; As Van Bebber states in one of the interviews, he wanted to “make it look like hell.” In that regard, he succeeded. The transfer by Severin retains the deep red and blue color scheme employed by Van Bebber, reminiscent of Dario Argento’s earlier works. Van Bebber’s vision is one which trendy contemporary filmmakers strive to emulate, but rarely achieve, and Severin keeps the crucial graininess intact while still presenting a stellar picture worthy of the standards of home viewers.
The Manson Family is an unnerving cacophony of screams, folk music, interview sampling, heavy metal, and the sickening sounds of murderous rage all presented in high quality Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The sound design and soundtrack is meant to be as chaotic as the events unfolding, yet the dialogue is always coherent. For such a troubled and chaotic production, Van Bebber’s execution in this regard is admirable.
Severin included some exceptional extras including the fascinating documentary The Van Bebber Family that features candid interviews with cast and crew, crude deleted scenes taped directly from the Steenbeck onto 1/2 inch video, interview excerpts of Manson from the film Charles Manson Superstar (1989) and Van Bebber’s latest short film, Gator Green.
Even in today’s climate of “extreme” horror offerings, Van Bebber’s film still packs quite a punch, especially during a savage climax that delivers an unrestrained depiction of the Tate and LaBianca murders. Van Bebber’s interpretation works tremendously because of his unsanitary depictions of cruelty that serve not to glorify a drug-fueled murder spree, but to present it truthfully in all its senseless ugliness. Any early attempt by Van Bebber to humanize the criminals is quickly erased during the brutal climax that is sure to haunt viewers long after the credits roll.
~ By Chris Hallock