JULY 23, 2009
Of all the “legendary” serial killers, Charles Manson is probably the most widely known, but I’ve never really had any interest in his case. Someone like Bundy or even Charles Whitman is much more interesting to me, as there is a normal life and then a snap. Manson was seemingly crazy his entire life, and his claim to fame is that one day he told some of his moron followers to go kill some folks. But I recently took more of an interest due to taking part in a “ghost hunt” at a house next door to the infamous murders, where the ghosts of Sharon Tate and the others are supposedly haunting. I didn’t see anything while I was there, but it still got me to finally get around to watching The Manson Family, which I’ve heard about a couple of times and was sort of curious about even beforehand.
On paper it sounds like a great idea: It’s the whole-ish story told in a documentary style through the eyes of the followers. Manson is usually the focus, but since he’s not the one who actually committed the murders, other films have a strange disconnect where you’re following this one guy around and then the climax revolves around other people while he smokes weed at home or whatever he was doing. Indeed, Manson (Marcelo Games) all but completely disappears after the first 30 minutes or so, popping up only briefly in a handful of scenes.
And for a while, it works. The crazy cutting, insane sound design, and shockingly brave performances (particularly the Wil Forte-looking Marc Pitman) were quite compelling and unique; even succeeding in presenting an acid-induced state of mind. It’s sort of like a cross between the more psychedelic scenes in Natural Born Killers and the dinner scene from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, except for an entire film. But that’s also the problem. It’s not exhausting, it’s just tiresome. The rapid edits and super-imposed images and other assorted nonsense starts to feel less exciting and instead more juvenile, like a high school kid trying to be “edgy”. And Games' performance as Charlie (no one says the name Manson, for some reason) pales in comparison to Jeremy Davies’ from the TV movie Helter Skelter, which aired around the same time this film was finished.
Not helping matters is a ridiculous framing story about some punk kids planning to off the reporter making the documentary. Every now and then we have to watch them do their thing, and it completely throws the tone/pace off. Finally, the ending is just complete horseshit, they kill the reporter, and then each other after one of them explains what “Charlie Don’t Surf” means. I assume the point is to show Manson’s continuing influence on the scumbags of today, but it’s just such a poorly shot and acted scene that it fails to accomplish anything besides making an already overlong movie longer. Plus, it’s pure fiction, awkwardly edited into what seems like a fairly faithful recreation of what actually happened.
And when you consider the film’s production (at times more interesting than the film itself), it’s a wonder such things were even bothered with, as the money used to shoot/edit these scenes could have been allocated to improve the sections of the film that actually work. The film was shot without an actual budget; writer/director Jim Van Bebber would film when he could, over a period of ten to fifteen years (shooting and editing times are a bit muddled). He would show rough cuts at festivals to get money to shoot more footage that would be edited in for its next showing. I would have liked to have known why he even stopped shooting and finally said “it’s done”. There is no real narrative to the film itself, it is only dictated by what happened in real life, so it’s conceivable that he could have kept on filming to include well-known events that the film skips, such as Manson’s dealings with Brian Wilson.
So I dunno. I would certainly recommend seeing at least some of it, just for the sheer brashness of it all, but it’s sort of one of those things where you can watch it for 20 minutes or 4 hrs (it’s 95 minutes long, for the record) and come away with the same reaction. The film offers zero insight into the man, so Manson-philes won’t learn anything new, and the film is too “in its own head” for someone with zero knowledge of Manson to understand what the hell is happening.
What say you?
P.S. I understand there is a boxed set with a documentary about the film’s production, but this was a Netflix rental, so all I got was the film. The only extra on the disc is the trailer. If anyone has seen the doc and thinks I should check it out, by all means let me know!