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Manson Family, The (2004)
Movie Review by The Mortician

Manson Family, The (2004) (aka: Charlie's Family) I finally had the chance to view Jim Van Bebber's 15 years-in-the-making opus on everyone's 'favorite' serial killer (even though he committed few 'hands on' crimes himself), Charles Manson. Van Bebber should be given an award just for sticking with the material for that long! Even some of the most 'drawn-out' shoots (like Peter Jackson's BAD TASTE) only lasted three or four years. I can't imagine what it's been like living with that material so closely for so long now. By now everyone's heard the story: Jim started the movie shortly after the well-received DEADBEAT AT DAWN came out, lost funds, started again, shot some shorts to raise money, shot some more, ran out of money, and on and on it went for nearly a decade and a half. The screenplay for the movie was actually published a few years ago and finally, Blue Underground U.K. came to the rescue with completion funds...THE MANSON FAMILY, completed, is much different from all the various bootleg and work-in-progress versions I saw on 'black markets' and in film fests over the years. I'd say it's probably the most graphically accurate movie ever filmed on the subject matter. We see Charlie and the individuals he lured into his fantasy lifestyle down home on the 'ranch': graphic orgies, drugs, hallucinations, religion skewed and warped to work for Charlie's (sexual) advantages, and a nubile young group of disenchanted youth falling for his 'free love, do as you please' philosophy like it's candy right out of the box...What works best is the way Van Bebber tells this story: there's current footage of the main players reflecting back on the events from prison (including Van Bebber himself as 'Bobby') intercut with footage of the grouup doing their thing in 1969---all obviously much younger. They look like the kids they are portraying in the 'flashback' footage that makes up the meat of the movie---and the 'battered-up' film-look and exposures chosen to make the 16mm footage look 'grainy' makes it look even more 'slice of life real.' This is an eerie---if not accidental---coup that Mr. Van Bebber achieved simply by shooting so long, and it really works to his advantage. It adds to the credibility of the cast and escalates the 'no-budget'aspects that the director (and producer Mike King) had to deal with when they first started this project. When I first saw those scenes by themselves ten years ago, the felt amateurish and silly. Now, ten years later, with the framework of the very real 'adults' reflecting back on their crimes and the way we see how insane real people DO act on reality TV, these scenes WORK especially well, even when the acting (in some sequences) is typically below average. But then again, drugged-out hippies would probably act a little strange, wouldn't they?The scenes on the ranch inevitably move from music to drugs to free love to sharing women to orgies and to...Charlie trying to cut an album...refusing to 'conform' to record label standards...and eventually convincing his 'disciples' to kill after he declares war on Black Panthers---and there's a scene where Manson himself kills two guys in a drug deal, though I assume Van Bebber the writer took some liberties with REALLY happened back then in terms of Charlie's actions---because up until now, I don't know anyone who touched that subject too close. I'm not arguing it one way or the other, and of course, a 34-year-old felon who starts a cult, I sure wouldn't put is past him---but Manson himself insists he never killed anyone throughout the 'cult day' proceedings. So that was surprising...As the movie unfolds, Manson is portrayed mainly as a frustrated artist who wants to bang chicks, get high, and be respected by a group of people---beyond that, there's not too much that is added to the character, the myth, or his motivations. Perhaps there was nothing to add, really, as Manson the 'pop icon' is pretty shallow in reality...The movie tells three stories concurrently: that of Manson and the group's past (getting high through the kills) and present (in jail), which is intercut with a group of current-day 'Manson-ites' who try to emulate their icon with a modern day spin on the sex and drugs (including one NASTY injection scene!)and a final story that sort of intersects with the Manson-ites as two talk show types try to put together a TV Anniversary Special on Manson...I will say this: the movie is well-paced, moves nicely, and keeps your attention, that much is for sure. There's lots of subtle 'salutes' to 1970's grindhouse movies like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. There's fast editing and wild sound effects that are used in an effective way, one paved by a director named Oliver Stone. As a matter of fact, this movie FEELS like Oliver Stone could have directed it---it has some of his signature marks in execution and I mean this in a most complimentary way---Van Bebber obviously absorbed himself so much in the material that he literally BECAME the material...so this approach helps make the movie work as well...There's plenty of fast cuts and subliminal madness to be found within the frames of this movie. And yes, the big selling point (in the underground press, anyway) is THE GORE. Yes, the stabbings are particularly brutal and lengthy. Mercifully, Sharon Tate's murder is completed off camera, but the rest of the stuff is shown in all of its brutality and is very difficult to watch. Here, the low budget and the 'guerilla shooting style' of Van Bebber's early years work to create something grim, depressing, and not for the squeamish.And as for the modern-day ending that wraps up the movie, it also is nihilistic and depressing, about as much so as the 'big murder spree' at the end of Manson's 1969 chokehold on his 'disciples.'THE MANSON FAMILY is definitely worth a look---from an independent moviemaker's point of view of endurance, that much is for sure. But whether the very real events portrayed here are worthy of such an extensive and graphic cinematic depiction are a whole other ball of wax. I mean, most of the GREATEST 16-mm lensed horror shows were INSPIRED by true evens---CHAINSAW and PSYCHO from Gein, LAST HOUSE from Bergman source material, HENRY from a 20/20 segment...my point is, the hideous actions of real psychos doing horrible things to real people...was DILUTED within fictional context.With THE MANSON FAMILY, we have no such watering down. It's real people being portrayed here, real events, some drug-clouded with some artistic license, but the murder scenes are an exact replication of a sad and terrible event that really occurred 26 years ago...and even some of Charles Manson's REAL music recordings are used as background material...and he's the one who CAUSED all this to happen...So you get a really sleazy, awful feeling watching this movie when the credits finally start to roll in reverse...Now whether this is a good thing...or a bad thing...probably depends on your point of view. Although this is a very bold and engrossing movie, at the same time, the material and the way it's presented has a demented, mind-melting philosophy all of its own, even with the current (fictional) plotlines added in.Whether you, as a viewer, can embrace this approach of reality filmmaking as entertainment...or go running for cover from it like a scolded dog...is entirely up to you.You've been warned. Discretionary recommendation.
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