DIRECTOR Jim Van Bebber WRITER Jim Van Bebber STARS Marcelo Games; Marc Pitman; Leslie Orr BLU-RAY 10 June
The sordid story of Charles Manson and the collection of misfits and damaged souls who formed his circle has long fascinated the general public. There have been numerous books and documentaries on their acts of violence and terror that culminated in the (still) shocking slaughter of the heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate, a beautiful young rising star who had recently married director Roman Polanski. It’s a subject that seems ripe for big-screen treatment, and yet a definitive version has never appeared. Perhaps it’s still too near the knuckle for Hollywood; before his arrest Manson had befriended several A-listers and was making a name for himself around the wealthy suburbs of Los Angeles. The death of Tate threw Tinseltown into a tailspin from which it took a very long time to recover.
Manson enthusiast and low-budget director Jim Van Bebber released his take on events in 2003 after 10 years of weekend shoots with friends and self-financing. The completed Manson Family is something of an oddity. It mixes faked documentary footage of Charlie’s Family (the working title of the film, and the one that still appears on the print) set in the late 60s alongside a current story of a true-crime TV show investigating the clan, while a new group of Manson enthusiasts plot similar atrocities. Most of the key moments in his history are here, including the Tate murder, and it’s a grimy, nasty portrayal, with plenty of sex, extreme violence and a substantial amount of gore. Marcelo Games’ portrayal of Charlie is eerily accurate, as are many of the part-time actors who fill the roles of the family, and the film is often disturbing, with Van Bebber giving it a look and style that makes it feel like an old 70s horror.
But a major problem lies in the director’s own vision, which is sadly crippled by the micro-budget and overlong making. While Van Bebber is to be applauded for attempting to differ from a straight narrative — the film jumps back and forth in time and in style; the new footage is relatively slick, while the old is full of fake Grindhouse-style negative scratches and shot on 16mm — The Manson Family is often annoying and confusing. It works better in smaller sections than as a whole, and it’s no surprise to discover that the director shot promo videos for several bands. Perhaps best is the soundtrack, written mostly by ex-Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo and even featuring songs by Manson. That the album was released some years before the film says a lot about this odd production. So, far from definitive. But definitely interesting.
This 10th anniversary release from Severin is unlikely to win over any new fans, but existing supporters of the film may want to upgrade. When originally released in America nine minutes were censored, but this disc is fully uncut, with a decent set of extras included. There’s a fine commentary track from Van Bebber, his latest (and frankly pretty forgettable) short movie Gator Green, and an excellent 75-minute documentary that details the decade-long struggle to complete the picture and talks to just about everyone involved in the production. It’s all rounded out with an interview with Manson himself that, while the date isn’t given, looks to be shot on video around the early 90s. A fascinating 12 minutes of grainy, washed-out footage that only goes to prove one thing: Charles Manson was, and remains, completely crazy. But then, you already knew that.