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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

THE MANSON FAMILY -- Blu-Ray review by porfle

If you've followed the Manson family case over the years, chances are you've seen the whole range of stuff from sober documentary-style films to the most exploitative trash that various sick minds can churn out. THE MANSON FAMILY (2003) falls somewhere in between the two extremes for most of its running time before finally delving feet first into extreme gore and wallowing around in it.

One thing's for sure, this isn't just some fly-by-night knock-off. Writer-director Jim Van Bebber spent close to twelve years, off and on, trying to get his vision of Charlie and the gang into releasable shape and in front of audiences, and clearly a great deal of work went into it. While loosely edited and seemingly slapdash at times, this merely adds to the documentary feel the film often achieves--in fact, much of its visual and narrative style is based largely on the amazing Robert Hendrickson-Laurence Merrick documentary "Manson" (1973), which featured the real Manson family going about their everyday psychotic lives at Spahn Ranch and engaging in sex and drug orgies while regurgitating buttloads of verbal sewage their spongelike minds had absorbed from their googly-eyed, motormouthed leader. To make it resemble old documentary footage even more, the film has been heavily aged "Grindhouse" style.

Van Bebber cherry-picked the most interesting and/or believable passages from the various first-hand (but often contradictory) accounts available for his screenplay, relying mainly on that of Manson's right-hand man Charles "Tex" Watson because of his apparent ability to remember things in detail. The first three-quarters of the film establish Charlie's initial influence over his easily manipulated followers, many of whom were runaways seeking love and stability or anti-establishment rebels looking to drop out of society. With the strangely charismatic ex-con Charlie coming on like a sage to some and a messianic figure to others, the story is told largely in a stream-of-consciousness style that's sometimes surreal and sometimes hyper-real.

This includes copious amounts of softcore sex scenes featuring some women who look remarkably stunning in the nude, particularly Leslie Orr as Patty Krenwinkel and Maureen Allisse as Manson's favorite, Susan Atkins, aka "Sadie Mae Glutz" (both of whom were actually rather homely in real life). Their seemingly idyllic lifestyle, however, gradually gives way to darker accounts of gang-rape, kidnapping, and threats of bodily harm to those who want to leave the family. Charlie's criminal tendencies come to the fore in other ways as well, with violence and terror becoming the standard means of getting what he wants.

It's at this point, late in the film, that THE MANSON FAMILY starts to fulfill what we've come to anticipate will eventually take place on the screen if indeed Van Bebber has chosen to go the exploitation route--which he has, with a vengeance. Various early murders include the marathon death of Gary Hinman at the hands of Bobby Beausoleil (Van Bebber) and Sadie, culminating in the infamous two nights of horror that comprised the Tate/LaBianca murders. Those familiar with Vincent Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter" and other detailed accounts of the killings will recognize much of what happens here as true-to-life even as they recoil at seeing it portrayed in such graphic, gore-movie terms.

Van Bebber pulls no punches here--the screen is awash in blood as beatings, stabbings, slashings, strangulations, and shootings abound in the most graphic detail, with very little left to the imagination. It may leave some viewers wondering just how healthy or unhealthy their interest in this material is--are they watching to learn about these events, or to get a vicarious thrill from seeing them? Is Van Bebber simply playing up to our basest instincts here, or is he forcing us to confront the horrors that we usually only allow ourselves to imagine in the most vague terms? And what of the gorehounds whose only consideration, as we're well aware, is simply to react in paroxysms of delight? Needless to say, we're left to work out all of these conflicting feelings ourselves.

With all of this going on, it's a shame that the central figure of the story, Charles Manson, is so miscast, with Marcelo Games almost wholly ineffective in the role. It's hard to imagine anyone paying any attention to this guy, much less following him into hell. On the other hand, Leslie Orr and Maureen Allisse are fantastic as Patty and Sadie, with Orr in particular doing a superb job of aping the typical Manson fanatic stridently spouting Charlie-isms or reacting with a combination of revulsion and sadistic glee at her own brutality.

Marc Pitman looks nothing like "Tex" Watson but carries the role fairly well especially during the harrowing Tate sequence in which he is seen sporting demonic ram's horns (although he doesn't levitate as Atkins claimed he did in her memoirs) and doing most of the killing himself. The rest of the cast varies wildly, with some coming off rather poorly and others quite convincing during the "interview" segments.

The Blu-Ray disc from Severin Films is in full frame with Dolby 5.1 sound. No subtitles. Lots of extras include Jim Van Bebber's recent horror short "Gator Green", his audio commentary for the film, an interview with composer Phil Anselmo, deleted scenes and trailers, a 10-minute interview with Charlie himself (which is typically incomprehensible), a lengthy making-of doc called "The Van Bebber Family" featuring cast and crew interviews, and a feature-length film "In the Belly of the Beast" which explores the trials and travails of Van Bebber and other indie filmmakers (including "Hardware" director Richard Stanley) as they preview their work at the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival.

For a movie with such a patchwork production history, THE MANSON FAMILY is remarkably consistent--Van Bebber picks up the threads of this supremely lurid story and weaves them inexorably through the family's evolution from free-love hippie commune to ragtag guerilla army of terror and murder. (Only the latter-day subplot about a Goth murder gang emulating the Manson family in the 90s seems out of place.) It's a damned ugly story, though, especially with these real-life murders depicted in such excruciating detail, and each individual viewer is going to have to decide whether they consider this a good movie or an affront to their sensibilities. As for me, I found this earnestly-made indie to be intermittently interesting, somewhat entertaining, and moderately worthwhile.

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