The Manson Family Review
There has been a problem with big screen Charles Manson biopics, both dramatic and documentary, inasmuch as they prove less interesting that those which somehow been affected by his infamy: the otherwise lacklustre Sharon Tate horror Eye of the Devil; the violence-in-response-to-violence approach of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth; Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother which had Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil in the title role. Jim VanBebber, best known for the cult 1988 no-budget flick Deadbeat at Dawn, therefore has the perfect opportunity to stake his claim on making the definitive Manson record - he even hedges his bets and goes for a mock documentary style - but shows that once again the Manson infamy proves elusive on-screen.
As the title suggests The Manson Family is as much concerned with the followers of Manson as it is with the man himself. It tells its tale through three narrative threads: mock interviews with “family” members, dramatised recreation of the events of the sixties leading up to eventual incarceration, and a modern day (-ish, the title card reads 1996) story involving a gang of Manson acolytes and a TV producer mounting the documentary from with the other two threads are supposedly taken. What’s interesting about this approach is not so much the parallels that VanBebber draws but rather the distinctive look he has achieved. Beginning production at the end of the eighties, the writer/director was unable to reach the completion stage until 2003, yet it never feels like a film of its time, nor does it appropriate from the various horror trends that have surfaced since. Indeed, beyond nods in the direction of Natural Born Killers and Se7en, The Manson Family shares a much greater kinship with the trashier exploitation product of the late sixties and early seventies, i.e. the time at which most of its tale takes place.
No doubt in part the responsibility of the low budget - The Manson Family was shot on 16mm before being blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution - but this visual styling does aid the feel of historical recreation. Unfortunately, the film also needs it as the acting never rises above the merely adequate (thankfully it is only during the big dramatic scenes where it truly grates) whilst the documentary approach only serves to short circuit the drama. By switching between the various timelines the sense of increasing paranoia and impending violence is never successfully captured. Moreover, in delivering much of the dialogue through the various talking heads, VanBebber’s screenplay never extends beyond a level of soundbites. The most immediate effect of this is that interest soon wanes once the various novelties of its approach have worn off, but more fatally it means the film can never rise above being yet another Manson film simply exploiting his “celebrity” as an excuse to show some debased going-ons.
Indeed, the latter becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses. In the role of Manson, Marcelo Games proves too inadequate, too uncharismatic to even remotely explain the power this man had over these people; beyond the hair and the beard there is nothing to connect the actor with the popular image. The same can be said of the recreations of the most famous moments in the Manson “mythology”. The Tate-LaBianca murders, for all VanBebber’s claims of authenticity, are rendered in a manner that emphasises the over-acting and the gore over any attempt at providing any insight. And without insight The Manson Family simply becomes another exploitation pic. As the trailer promises this is a film solely about sex, drugs and violence.
Considering the protracted production history, The Manson Family comes across surprisingly well on DVD. Shot on 16mm, the film thus shot in the Academy ratio, one which is maintained on disc. However, despite the choice of film stock there is very little evident grain in the picture, rather the various defects in the print are solely the responsibility of the filmmakers in their efforts to create some kind of documentary authenticity.
The sound comes in three options, the original Dolby Surround mix, plus - as is common with Anchor Bay - DD5.1 and DTS mixes. The latter two pose no problems but as the original proves perfectly adequate there is little reason to select an upgrade. VanBebber has obviously spent the time working on his soundtrack and the various lysergic effects that punctuate the drama come across perfectly well which ever option is selected.
Though unlikely to find a huge audience, Anchor Bay UK have also put the effort into the supplementary features, resulting in a two-disc special edition. Beyond the main feature, disc one houses little of importance, the sole extras being a pair of theatrical trailers and a trio of galleries which together amount to over 150 colour and black and white production stills.
Disc two has the meatier offerings, including two hour-plus documentaries. Alongside these is a ten-minute interview excerpt from Charlie Manson : Superstar which proves fascinating if a little unnerving and almost completely incomprehensible. The problem, however, is that in putting in this piece on the disc it invariably invites comparisons with Marcelo Games performance, one which the film, of course, does not survive.
The first of the two documentaries is a 76-minute piece entitled The VanBebber Family. Although the production history of the film is certainly interesting, I’m not entirely convinced that it warrants such a running time, especially as the majority of its duration comprises solely of talking heads. That said, most of those involved with The Manson Family are interviewed and VanBebber is pleasing serious about his work, if not always 100% convincing in what he says or believes he has achieved (there’s a definite penchant for self-mythologizing). The only truly awkward moments come when various cast and crew members compare their own experiences of making the film with that of what the “family” members went through, hence the documentary’s title.
The second piece is more interesting affair, following as it does the 1997 Fant-asia festival in Montreal, Canada. Though shot on a single video camera, its 73 minutes covers a lot of ground and filmmakers. The interviews with Richard Stanley (director of Hardware and Dust Devil) are the most rewarding as he is easily the most eloquent (and perhaps intelligent) person on show, but director Alex Chisholm fly-on-the-wall approach also captures some pleasingly squirm inducing moments. The connection to The Manson Family incidentally is that the film received a “work in progress” screening at the festival and as such includes interviews with VanBebber amongst various others.
Unlike the main feature, none of the extras come with subtitles.