The Manson Family (2003)
By: Stuart Giesel on September 16, 2013 | Comments
Severin | Region Free | 1.33:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD MA 5.1 | 95 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Jim Van Bebber
Starring: Marcelo Games, Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse, Amy Yates
Screenplay: Jim Van Bebber
Country:
He probably would refute the connection, but Jim Van Bebber's The Manson Family feels like the spiritual sequel to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers: both films play around with different film stocks and speeds, contain hallucinogenic segments, are utterly outrageous when it comes to the depiction of anarchic behaviour and on-screen violence and focus around supremely nasty, nihilistic individuals committing hideous deeds. True, The Manson Family has much more of a documentary feel, as Van Bebber uses direct-to-camera interview techniques to capture the mindset of this fucked-up family - and specifically not, it should be said, of Charles Manson himself - and for the most part this chilling and spectacularly bloody true-crime story clicks. Where it falters is with an unnecessary "modern-day" wrapper, but more about that in a minute.

The Manson Family (or, as the titles read, Charlie's Family, in my opinion a much better and more fitting title) is a fairly plotless series of loosely-connected scenes cataloguing the drug- and sex-fueled escapades of men and women who come under the thrall of enigmatic and charismatic cult leader Charles Manson (Marcelo Games). These include no-nonsense Tex (Marc Pitman), the passionate - maybe too passionate - Patty (Leslie Orr), Bobby (writer/director Van Bebber) and others. It's 1969, and the summer of love is over - or, if it hasn't quite ended yet, it certainly will have by the time the events of The Manson Family are played out. This makeshift "family" of Charlie's just want to smoke dope, screw and preach about stuff like free love and individuality, but it becomes clear that they are anything but free and individual when it comes to Charles Manson, a man who projects himself as God, possesses fierce determination as far as protecting his family goes, is blind to his shortcomings (he wants to be a musician but doesn't have the knack) and maintains serious delusions of grandeur. Under Manson's guidance, the family go from drug-fuelled orgies to orgies of a different kind, as they embark upon a series of brutal slayings that are most remembered for the horrific slaughter of then-pregnant American actress Sharon Tate, who was married to director Roman Polanski at the time.

The Manson Family is an uneven exploration of what drove these young men and women to do the things they did under Manson's guidance. The majority of the film focuses on the family's time together as they smoke, fuck, smoke, fuck some more, and try to bring in new recruits and finance them through various initiatives. Interspersed throughout these recreations are interviews with the various family members, giving their perspectives Rashomon-style - you don't quite know who to believe, if anyone, but you can be sure that the participants tend to downplay their involvement in the mayhem. Van Bebber is careful not to include Charles Manson in these interviews. This may have been due to Games' early departure from the project, but whether this was intentional or not, the film is better for it. Enough has been written about Manson himself - the focus here is on his acolytes. Van Bebber only hints at the reasons why these seemingly normal young people ended up causing the violence they did - maybe that's the point, perhaps there is no simple explanation. Eventually we get to the murders themselves, and they are as horrific as you might expect, possibly more so under Van Bebber's exacting eye for detail. And he doesn't just cover those infamous murders at Cielo Drive; we're also witness to the shooting of drug dealer Bernard Crowe, acquaintance Gary Hinman (whom Manson suspects is in possession of a large amount of money) and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Thankfully, we are spared the grisly details of Sharon Tate's death (Van Bebber commendably wanted to downplay that particular murder that everyone remembers so that the others aren't overshadowed); for everyone else, Van Bebber recreates the Manson murders in unflinching detail. Bodies are continually stabbed and bludgeoned and abused without mercy, the camera capturing all the bloody carnage. It's shocking, chilling stuff, made doubly-so thanks to the convincing, ghoulish performances led by Pitman. The Manson Family is exhausting to watch, and certainly not at all for the squeamish. And thanks to its quasi-documentary style, it feels more real than if this had just been a straightforward horror biopic. Some will feel this to be too exploitative, but to be honest if the violence had been toned down The Manson Family may have paradoxically felt even more exploitative than it already does.

Not everything works, unfortunately. The film's modern-day framing device - a structure which in my mind hardly ever works in film (just see Saving Private Ryan and The Lone Ranger to name two off the top of my head) is set in 1996 and centres around a reporter played by Carl Day who is planning an expose of Manson and garners the attention of a bunch of psychotic deadbeats sympathetic to Manson's cause. Thankfully this scenario makes up only a fraction of The Manson Family's runtime, but whenever it shows up it only proves how intrusive and unnecessary it is. If Van Bebber had simply focused on Manson's family itself, even if the fractured narrative structure meant the film's running time would barely break 80 minutes, the results would have packed more of a wallop. Whilst almost every actor has their amateurish or awkward moment of line delivery, for the most part they absolutely nail their roles - it surely couldn't have been easy considering the brutal nature of the material and the fact that they spend a great deal of the film naked. Probably the person who makes the least impact out of the lead actors is, surprisingly, Marcelo Games as Charles Manson himself. Whilst Games looks the part, he never quite gets under the skin as you might expect; it's a solid performance, but it just feels like there's something missing in his delivery. He's unable to emit that true sense of danger and unpredictability that's required. For an unsettling glimpse of the man himself, check out the 12 minute interview with Charles Manson on the disc's special features.

Still, you have to hand it to Van Bebber, who saw the project through to completion despite an absurdly long passage of time, numerous financial difficulties (the film is ultra-low budget, but that works in its favour), the loss of his lead actor and other challenges. His attention to detail is commendable - apparently he poured a lot of research into making the film - and as you might have seen in the underrated Deadbeat at Dawn, Van Bebber can make a little go a long way. The re-enactment of the family feels authentic, the interviews are all brilliantly acted by the lead performers, and because Van Bebber deliberately scratched and aged much of the footage it truly does feel like a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Make no mistake, this is a disturbing, ultra-violent and raw film that won't appeal to the vast number of moviegoers. Despite some errors in judgment, Van Bebber has delivered an uncompromising vision of a sect of horrible and horribly-misguided people who completely lost their way. Van Bebber may not fully explain their actions, and certainly doesn't condone them, but it's as close to a concise picture outside of a true documentary as we're likely to see. For those who appreciate their cinema as unforgiving and unapologetic as possible, and can stomach some truly graphic violence, this is a must-see.
The Disc
Severin's Blu-Ray release presumably delivers The Manson Family with picture and sound quality precisely as intended by writer/director Jim Van Bebber and his crew. Given this is a faux-documentary with deliberately scratched and otherwise abused footage to give it that aged, well-used look, both detail and colour is strong, and avoids that cheap "direct-to-TV" look that the low budget might have suggested from the outset. Sound is almost overwhelming, particularly during the psychedelic and murder scenes (sometimes they are one and the same), but the gruesome sound effects, music and dialogue never become overbearing or completely assaultive.

The disc is stuffed with features, most of them worth a look. The audio commentary with Jim Van Bebber provides some interesting facts, and Van Bebber is candid about the challenges presented by the film and why it saw such a long period of gestation. But he also lapses into prolonged periods of silence, and in the last 20 minutes falls almost completely off the radar. Better is the hour-and-a-quarter feature The Van Bebber Family, which is a thorough making of with candid interviews from Van Bebber, the principal cast and crew - this is probably the most insightful and interesting feature on the disc. There's an interview with musician Phil Anselmo, the aforementioned interview with Manson himself (disturbing, to say the least) and some deleted scenes of extremely low quality (in terms of picture and sound quality, not the material itself). In the Belly of the Beast is a long look at the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival in which Van Bebber had shown The Manson Family - also of interest here are the various other underground films at the festival, including Richard Stanley's director's cut of Dust Devil; in fact, Stanley has a lot to say about his film and the studio's meddling. There are a number of green-band and red-band trailers for The Manson Family. Finally, Jim Van Bebber's short film Gator Green makes its first release on Severin's release - this is a weird, occasionally gruesome story about Vietnam pals who feed victims to gators and has a definite Texas Chain Saw Massacre vibe (the Tobe Hooper original, that is).
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Absolutely not the sort of film to even watch in mixed company of like-minded individuals with a few beers, Jim Van Bebber's The Manson Family is utterly fearless and devastating in its clinical brutality. There's sex, nudity and vicious gore aplenty, filmed in a quasi-documentary manner that only compounds the ick factor. An ill-advised framing device mars what is otherwise an overwhelming effort, and Severin's Blu-Ray release delivers the goods in all departments. Recommended if you have a strong stomach and don't mind non-linear, occasionally wandering, narrative.
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