The Manson Family
2004, NR, 95 min. Directed by Jim Van Bebber. Starring Jim Van Bebber, Marcelo Games, Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Sage Stallone, Maureen Allisse, Tom Burns.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 29, 2004
Finally, the film for those individuals who have one of those Charlie Manson T-shirts tucked away in their closet beneath their Einsturzende Neubauten tour swag. Director Jim Van Bebber is something of a cause célebrè in the underground-filmmaking world. Alongside the NYC cinema-of-transgression icons Nick Zedd, Richard Kern (whose 1985 short "You Killed Me First" is briefly seen in the background here), and Lydia Lunch, Van Bebber has over the past two decades carved out a niche of his own by financing, shooting, editing, and occasionally starring in some of the most – and why bother mincing words here? – fucked-up films ever made in America. He’s akin to Germany’s Jorge Buttgereit (Nekromantik), but minus the sturm und drang and existential brouhaha. Instead, Van Bebber’s films – Deadbeat at Dawn, My Sweet Satan, and now The Manson Family, have singularly portrayed the hideous underbelly of the American status quo. He is, in his own way, as much of an auteur as any of the filmmakers in the French New Wave, albeit with a far more vicious and unforgiving take on the creeping madness that, in the end, is mankind. The Manson Family is by far Van Bebber’s most cohesive, sustained work to date, and while it’s likely to find slightly less than zero audience members willing to endure the horrific onscreen re-creations of the Manson "family’s" atrocities, taken on its own terms it’s something of a genuinely smart piece of filmmaking. Shot over the course of 10 years, as Van Bebber could amass the financing and get the various actors together, The Manson Family is the story we all think we know: This time, however, the story unfolds from the perspective of Charlie (still a cipher, even here) and his gang of drug and sex-crazed anti-hippies. Van Bebber casts himself as Bobby, while Marc Pittman’s Tex goes thrill-killing alongside a bevy of Mansonistas (Allisse’s Sadie is particularly affecting) and the Tate-LaBianca murders hang over every minute of the proceedings like a sick red storm front. Van Bebber and cinematographer Mike King incorporate all manner of technical trickery, from scratched and scorched film stock to LSD-replicating montages that, like it or not, enhance this grim little nightmare and push it into the realm of outsider art. Van Bebber, to his credit, never glorifies Manson, who comes off as a daffy, misogynistic wannabe hipster/musician with a sad, bad brain problem. Although this film is frequently near-unwatchable (both the almost constant, drug-fueled sex at the Spahn Ranch and the bloody orgy of death that caps Manson’s story are shown in all their vivid, visceral detail), Van Bebber does justice to a tale yet untold from the killer’s POV. Which doesn’t make it any less gut-churning to sit through, to be sure. Van Bebber’s film is tough, difficult, sporadically brilliant cinema, to be sure, and I doubt he’d have had it any other way. And as strange as it may sound, neither should the audience.