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The Manson Family (2003)

Youve seen the story through the eyes of the law... Now see it through the eyes of The Manson Family

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 95 minutes

US Certificate: Unrated UK Certificate: 18


In 1988, as Jim VanBebber was completing post-production on his debut underground classic 'Deadbeat at Dawn', he and cinematographer Mike King decided that for their next project they should turn to the murders carried out by the hippie followers of Charles Manson. King wanted a Roger Corman-style two-week 'quickie' shoot, but VanBebber's increasing obsession with the material, and a succession of cashflow problems and broken promises, ensured that filming and editing would take eight long years, and it would be a further seven years before post-production would be completed in 2003. The result is 'The Manson Family', a kaleidoscopic, post-modern reexamination of events which came to symbolise the end of sixties idealism, and which still leave a scar on the collective psyche of today's society.

'The Manson Family' cross-cuts between 1969 (the year of the murders) and 1996, when fictional TV reporter Jack Wilson (Carl Day) is editing together a documentary on the murders perpetrated by Manson's 'family', incorporating (like VanBebber's own film) old and new interviews with 'family' members and reconstructions of what happened. The testimonies of Tex (Marc Pitman), Patty (Leslie Orr), Sadie (Maureen Allisse) and Bobby (played by VanBebber himself), at times self-mythologising, at times simply self-serving, all subtly contradict one another, but combine to create a picture of sexual hedonism, naïve fanaticism, petty rivalry and permanent intoxication which spiral out of control as the music deals fail, the money runs out, the drugs turn nasty and murderous paranoia sets in. The middle-aged, respectable Wilson has nothing but contempt for Manson and his followers, but is forced to learn the hard way that Manson's abiding iconic status reflects a continuing crisis amongst today's dispossessed and dissatisfied youth, for whom history is bound to repeat itself.

VanBebber is, like Manson himself, a countercultural artist with something of a cult following, but in his own onslaught on the established values of Hollywood, the writer/director has adopted a mode of shooting and cutting which is altogether more thoughtful than his subject's. From the grainy-looking interviews to the psychedelic flashbacks reminiscent of the worst experimental cinema from the sixties, 'The Manson Family' achieves a lo-fi verité look whose faults, necessitated by the film's restricted budget, are largely excused by the device of the TV-documentary-within-a-film. As the credits roll at the end, a looped voice can be heard urging viewers to 'think about it', and indeed, for all the lurid potential of his subject matter, VanBebber manages to eschew sensationalism, preferring a more reflective, responsible approach. The murder scenes are unflinching, but the effect is not to titillate, but rather to expose the sordid reality of killing, blow by grim blow – and far from being glorified, Manson is portrayed by Marcelo Games as little more than a talentless, moronic hillbilly whose idiot grin, drug-addled chatter and white-supremacist fantasies suggest that only the most delusional of drugheads could ever have admired and followed him.

This bad trip of a movie is definitely not for everyone, but there are few accounts of the banality of evil as compelling.

It's Got: Meticulous research transformed into a complicated polyphonic narrative, editing which captures the disorientation of a drug-fuelled community, wonderfully annoying parodies of 1960s psychedelic cinema, murder scenes that are long and brutal (without even a hint of Hollywood sexiness), and Jim VanBebber (as Bobby) sporting a very fake-looking handlebar moustache.

It Needs: A bigger budget (although by framing itself as a TV docudrama, the film goes some way to excuse its cheap look and dubious acting)

DVD Extras Disk One - Scene selection; choice of 2.0/5.1/dts; optional English SDH; two theatrical trailers; three extensive stills galleries. Disk Two - The VanBebber Family (77min) absorbing featurette on the films nightmarishly protracted 15-year production history, with lots of behind-the-scenes material, and featuring interviews with writer/director Jim VanBebber ("if someone wanted to have a few drinks before a take, Id encourage them"), DOP/co-producer Mike King, production manager John Mays, business partner Rob Creager, costume designer Sherri Richman, SFX/make-up man Andy Capp ("it was a little like Mansons family in real life"), editor Mike Capone, assistant producer Samuel Turcotte, friend/filmmaker JT Anderson, actors Leslie Orr ("I would have done anything for this film"), Marc Pitman ("it was just like a big party"), Maureen Allisse, Marcello Games, Nate Pennington, Geoff Burkman, Amy Yates, Don Keaton, Jamy Holliday, Josh Hoke, Freddist and Carl Day (who was terrified of the actors playing his assailants); In the Belly of the Beast (73min) featurette on Montreals 1997 Fant-Asia Festival, following four independent horror movies screened there (A Gun for Jennifer, the directors cut of Dust Devil, Subconscious Cruelty, and a working edit of The Manson Family) and the financial horror stories behind their production; An Interview with Charles Manson (10min), excerpted from Charlie Manson Superstar, in which Manson blames everyone but himself, snivels and whines, rants incoherently like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, and stares wide-eyed into the camera while saying "Im carrying 900 million people in my mind" - if nothing else, this does show just how spot-on Marcello Games portrayal of him is. Version reviewed: Anchor Bay double disk special edition DVD Extras Rating: 7/10


In this cheap but effective postmodern 'documentary', the darkest icon of the sixties is investigated, exposed and demythologised – but not dispelled.