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22.7.14

The Manson Family (2005)


Director: Jim Van Bebber
Starring:  Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Marcelo Games, Maureen Elise, Amy Yates, Carl Day
Unrated 95 min

With a career spanning four decades and only two features and a handful of short films, you can’t call Jim Vanbebber a prolific filmmaker. Scarce as they may be, all are excellent. His debut, DEADBEAT AT DAWN, was a dirt cheap, DIY action epic.  ROADKILL was a short and nasty little portrait of a cannibal. MY SWEET SATAN was a savage and truly horrific riff on the Ricky Kasso murder case. But it's THE MANSON FAMILY that remains his masterwork.

THE MANSON FAMILY is also a film that some of us thought we’d never see. Made in fits and splotches over the course of a decade, it was often talked about, but nobody ever knew how much of the film actually existed. Production resumed when money was available, and ended when it was not. Vanbebber has said he sold plasma and flipped hamburgers in order to raise capital for the project. Many of the actors worked for either nothing or next to nothing. It wasn't until MPI provided a cash infusion that the film would be completed, nearly fifteen years after it began. The question became, would it live up to the hype? The answer is yes, and then some.

Vanbebber uses a framing story in which a modern day journalist (Carl Day) is making a documentary about the group. From there he weaves a collage-like account of the Manson family from their earliest days on the Spahn Ranch, to the murders, and to their arrest and trial. We are with the Family, frolicking in the fields, playing music, and making love. We see the members growing devotion to Charlie (Marcelo Games), who manipulates the women into seeing him as some sort of father/god figure, and hooks the men with an endless supply of willing and obedient women. Not to mention drugs. Lots of drugs. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, an LSD-fueled orgy turns into a blood soaked nightmare of sex and death that foreshadows the carnage to come. Vanbebber focuses on the transformation of Charles “Tex” Watson (Marc Pitman) from somewhat skeptical hedonist to fully compliant assassin. With Tex fully under his influence, Manson was free to enact his strange plans for “Helter Skelter.”


And when those plans are executed, Vanbebber pulls no punches. The scenes of the attacks on the Polanski and LaBianca homes is some of the most furious and stomach churning ever filmed. Vanbebber does not attempt to glamorize these acts in any way, and forces the viewer to experience the horror the Family unleashed on their victims. These scenes are extraordinary in their fury and their impact.

The film's greatest strength is its ability to capture the completely insane atmosphere of sex, drugs, and violence that Charles Manson created, and the frenzied devotion of his followers. At times the film often looks like a cross between a snuff film and a demented school play. What the cast may lack in acting skills, they make up for with a frightening, wild-eyed enthusiasm. After about forty-five minutes, I started to wonder if these people might kill for Vanbebber, if he asked.

The onlt thing that prevents THE MANSON FAMILY from becoming a pure true crime docu-drama is the inclusion of a group modern day Manson acolytes. The weird crew of teens, complete with tattoos, piercings, and bondage wear, develop an unhealthy fixation on the reporter making the documentary. These scenes don't entirely mesh with the main storyline, but still add a weird and nasty touch to the film.

If you are a horror or true crime fan, you must see this movie. THE MANSON FAMILY is certainly the most devastating movie ever made about the case. It's also one of the most intense and upsetting film experiences you'll ever have. Once seen, THE MANSON FAMILY cannot be forgotten.

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