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The Manson Family

Directed by Jim Van Bebber, 1997.

By Tom BakerPublished 12 months ago Updated 11 months ago 4 min read

"You better wise up. The time is going to come when all men will judge themselves before God. it will be the worst hell, the worst hell on Earth. It will make Nazi Germany look like a picnic! And you got to be ready for that right here, right now, just like that! And that's where we're at all the time."

--The Manson Family (1996)

In three days it will be the anniversary of the infamous Tate-Labiance Killings. Fity-three years ago, Charles Manson sent his drugged, deluded minions out to commit mass murder. The end result was the slaying of actress Sharon Tate, her friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Voytek Frykowski, an innocent bystander named Steven Parent, and, the next night (August 9th, 1969), Rosemary and Leno Labianca. These slayings were acts perpetrated by the Mansons, according to prosecutor Vince Bugliosi, author of the famous true crime book Helter Skelter, to try and instigate a "race war"; i.e. hoping radical black elements of the racial struggle would "rise" (to put it in Manson parlance) and overthrow straight, bourgeois American society. In the aftermath, Charlie fantasized the blacks would then turn to the Manson Family to "rule over the Earth," the Family having hidden in the "Bottomless Pit" foretold in Revelation Chapter Nine. The "Bottomless Pit" ("the Hole," in Manson parlance) was somewhere out in Death Valley, beyond the Family hideout at Spahn Ranch, and ALL of this was hidden in messages Charlie gleaned from The Beatles' double-LP "White Album." The song "Helter Skelter" in particular (a song penned by John Lennon, who was killed outside the same hotel where Polanski, whose wife was Sharon Tate, filmed portions of his Satanic blockbuster Rosemary's Baby in 1967).

Wonders never cease.

The Manson Family is a psychedelic splatter nightmare, a mixture of influences ranging from Kenneth Anger (Manson killer Bobby Beausoleil, here portrayed by director Jim Van Bebber, was an actor in Anger's film "Invocation of My Demon Brother," and completed the score for Anger's "Lucifer Rising" while incarcerated), to the transgressive cinema of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd. Indeed, scenes from Kern's "You Killed ME First!", starring the titanically volatile if somewhat imprecise actress "Lung Leg," can be seen played in a basement room, in 1996, while nude, masked (one with a giant red, white, and blue dildo strapped to her face) maniacs shoot heroin, murder a hostage, pluck guns out of thin air, and listen to the Jonestown Suicide Tape. They mail cut-and-paste threat letters to the host of a show called "Crime Stories" which is doing an episode on Manson.

We flash back and forth between 1996 and 1969, clips of interviews with actors and actresses that bear little resemblance to the characters they're supposed to be playing, and others that are supposed to be random "Manson Girls" and Family Members, mouthing the famous quotes with X's etched into their foreheads. The acting is crime show-level recreations, when not over-the-top sketch comedy satire of a hippie cult that screws, drops acid, performs games of make-believe, and "Creepy crawls" the homes of rich, white establishment types. The flashbacks are groovy, sleazy, modern bits of psychedelia, the film aged so that it looks like the surrealistic and often nightmarish type of acid-head film that was produced in the Sixties, films such as The Trip. We see the whole story laid out, in flashback and flash-forward: the rise of Manson as a guitar-strumming cult leader and wannabe musician, the rape of Simi Valley Sherrie, the murder of Gary Hinman, the murder of Shorty Shea, the practicing with weapons, and the interview with x-heads.

Orgies transpire, blood-drenched bachannals, the mock crucifixion of Charlie, who sprouts devil horns, sex, sex, and more sex. There's a lot of sex and blood and violence in this picture.

We flash forward to the weird, monstrous murderers in the basement room. One of them seems to be dressed vaguely, in skull face make-up and top hat, like a Voodoo Baron. A pale young woman walks around naked fixing drugs, injecting a man with huge breasts that is transitioning, apparently, while he intones a booming, cryptic phrase. Later, several of these and a few others (this is a confusing bunch) are seen outside the studio where "Crime Stories" is being filmed. The host, Jack Smith, eyes them warily as he proceeds to drive away.

The film has the look and feel of a Troma movie, but it is also a very brutal and disturbing splatter, with the Tate-Labianca killings recreated in extremely graphic detail. There is no cut-away, no pullback or editing of any of the violence, it seems. It is full-on torture, murder, and sadism, and this is a film that could easily have garnered an X-rating if released to mainstream audiences. The sound of pig squeals, astonishingly enough, is played over the killings as they are committed.

The end brings us back to the beginning, not, as it were, to Charlie (played by Marcello Games) but to the basement-dwelling killer cult from modern times. It ends with a blast of modern heavy metal and a loop of Jim Jones. What was Van Bebber trying to say?

On one hand, the film is a pseudo-recreation and send-up, as observed before, a sort-of sketch comedy adaptation of the Manson Family Stroy. It is also a comment on modern violence, media sensationalism, and the way the tabloidization of the news creates "folk heroes" out of cult leaders and psychopaths. Or, the film is simply reveling in nihilism. The first observation, borne out by a scene wherein the host of "Crime Stories" shows off the poster he got at the "Dark Fantasy Comic Book Store" of "row after row of Charlie faces", is rather trite and expected. Perhaps the film is simply reveling in morbid, gruesome butchery.

Whatever the case, the film has a certain sadness about it, one of broken dreams of free love "utopias" and spoiled aspirations of a new, "with it" culture, one that went down in flames. It's a movie you'll watch repeatedly, either stoned out of your mind (the visual tapestry, while not ground-breaking, is still a hallucinatory experience at times) or completely sober. You may find it a nauseating, repugnant, sickening excuse for butchery and worship of an "evil idol."

Or you may just be in it for the tits. (The blood on them notwithstanding.)

The Manson Family (1997) Trailer

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About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.: http://tombakerbooks.weebly.com

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Comments (1)

  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock12 months ago

    Once again, it sounds interesting, but I don't know that I'm up for it. Thanks for the review.

Tom BakerWritten by Tom Baker

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