The Film: 4/5
Ah yes, The Manson Family. We meet again, my old friend.
It's been close to a decade since I first laid eyes upon Jim VanBebber's uncompromising, drug-and-blood-saturated true crime masterpiece. Up until that time the only way that I or anyone else got an idea of what to expect in the final film was if we had read VanBebber's original screenplay, which was published as a trade paperback by Creation Books under its original title Charlie's Family in October 1998 - nearly seven years before the movie itself received an official release. It had screened at film festivals throughout the world in various incarnations since the early 90's, but it wasn't until I had procured a copy of the 2-disc special edition DVD of the unrated director's cut released by Dark Sky in early 2005 that I was finally able to see for myself what the fuss was about.
The Manson Family primarily functions as a recreation of the events that lead up to the horrifying Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1969 as recounted through interviews with imprisoned followers of Charles Manson (Marcelo Games). The interviews were conducted by local news reporter Jack Wilson (real-life Ohio newscaster Carl Day) for an episode of his program Crime Scene that seeks to turn the spotlight away from Manson and on those who actually committed the murders. One evening as Wilson is viewing the footage being edited for the show a gang of depraved, drug-addicted punks pathetically devoted to carrying on Manson's disturbing philosophies prepare to pay the reporter a little visit to show him personally what they think of his tireless journalistic efforts.
The interviews combine to create a disjointed, Rashomon-style narrative that questions just how much involvement Manson actually had in the crimes that he has forever become synonymous with. Some of the followers dispute his presence at the scene of several murders and robberies the cult carried out to settle old scores and keep from going out without food or hallucinogens. Tex Watson (Marc Pitman) and Sadie Atkins (Maureen Allisse) became deeply religious people during their incarceration, while others like Patty Krenwinkel (Leslie Orr) remain unrepentant for their gruesome crimes and believe that Manson's prophecies will one day come to pass.
You can love it or you can hate, but you cannot dismiss The Manson Family. Not easily anyway. Far from being one of the most disturbing or violent films anyone has ever made, Jim VanBebber has made a movie that goes above and beyond typical gore-drenched crime exploitation flicks by sporting a pulsating brain in its head and bringing to the table an actual creative agenda. Rarely have I seen a film made about Charles Manson and his homicidal cult be as thought-provoking as VanBebber's labor of love that consumed more than a decade of his life from the idea to final cut to the long-awaited theatrical release.
The Manson Family was filmed on weekends and off-days over the course of fifteen years when funds and actors were both available. Despite that the movie doesn't contain any mismatched footage. The wraparound sequence was conceived long after production began but it serves to frame the narrative in an unmistakable context: Manson gained his moderate amount of power by preying on the impressionable and weak-minded and convincing them he was their messiah with absolutely nothing to prove that claim, and his diseased influence continues to live on long after society has seemingly forgotten about him. The world will never be deprived of those all too willing to follow a pack mentality in the name of self-gratification and peace of mind.
VanBebber conceived of the film long before Quentin Tarantino put pencil to paper for Natural Born Killers. Both movies were born of a desire to explore the contemporary obsession with infamous crime figures, but when Oliver Stone signed on to direct Tarantino's script the writer's original intentions were thrown out the window in favor of a full-on sensory assault. The released movie attracted much controversy and garnered a following over the years, and yet it hasn't aged well. Killers is too much of a product of its time while The Manson Family has never seemed more relevant. Terrorist bombings, political assassinations, school shootings, every day the news is flooded with stories of loathsome, delusional individuals seeking to attain immortality by committing acts of mass murder. Every so often the earth vomits forth another Charles Manson to attract and sway the simple-minded among us into destroying the blood and soul of the human race.
Marcelo Games makes for the most terrifying Charles Manson yet portrayed on the screen by stripping away the layers of self-imposed mythology and corrupted piety to reveal the man for the miserable, aimless wretch he always was. Eager to start a career as a recording artist, Manson throws a petulant temper tantrum when a prominent producer refuses to do business with him for obvious reasons. He'd be just another crazy hippie loser without his "family" to build him up and do his bidding. The story lacks a focal character save for Jack Wilson, but he's only experiencing the crimes of Manson and his followers through modern-day interview footage. With a crowded narrative that still manages to flow smoothly (thanks to the precision editing by VanBebber and Michael Capone) few of the other actors get the opportunity to make impressions. The true standouts are Marc Pitman as a terrifying Tex Watson, Leslie Orr as the visibly batshit Patty Krenwinkel, and VanBebber himself as Bobby Beausoleil, the aspiring musician and actor who murdered a music teacher over a small inherited fortune that couldn't be found. No one goes over the top in their performances as some of the characters are already pretty close to the edge and the film would have been pushed over the edge into camp. The restraint adds to the pretense of realism VanBebber achieved.
Mike King, who served as director of photography on VanBebber’s first movie Deadbeat at Dawn (a great fearless action flick I recommend without hesitation) and his short films My Sweet Satan and Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin, bathes the film in wonderfully garish color schemes that jack the intensity up to barely sustainable levels at times. The daylight outdoor scenes are very naturalistic and the plentiful death scenes and Satanic orgies erupt in explosions of light and darkness. The director and William Farmer created the juicy gore effects that also get a visual boost thanks to King’s cinematography, sharpened remarkably by the new HD transfer on this Blu-ray.
The Manson Family was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its theatrical release. VanBebber also blended different filmmaking techniques and intentionally created grain and print damage in certain scenes to give it more of a gritty, documentary feel. Severin's 1.33:1 1080p high-definition transfer presents the best possible version of this movie we are likely to ever see. The quality is fantastic throughout; the unaltered scenes look the best. VanBebber's cinematography is bright and lurid with vibrant reds in the more disturbing scenes that resonate. Even the grainier scenes are in fine viewing condition and stay true to the director's intentions. Audio options are a pair of English soundtracks: 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (incorrectly listed on the package as Dolby Digital) and 2.0 Dolby Surround. For standard television sets the 2.0 track is the best way to go because the 5.1 requires manual volume adjustment, but both tracks are strong and clear and each element of the multi-layered sound mix works together without causing any noticeable distortion or overlap. No subtitles are included.
All of the extra features from the 2005 special edition DVD have been carried over to Severin's Blu-ray release and a few new ones have been added to the mix.
VanBebber contributes an audio commentary that because of his long involvement with the film and the source material he admits to having made several attempts at recording. The commentary ends 66 minutes into the movie because the director said all that he wanted to say, and what he brings to the track is the same blunt honest and intelligent assessment of the trials he was put through to get The Manson Family made and his interpretations of the film's themes and the true events it was based on. He also shares a great deal of technical background and some interesting and occasionally amusing production stories. There is also very little overlap with the other extra features on this disc.
The director also introduces (from sometime back in the 90's) a selection of deleted scenes (14 minutes) that look pretty rough on this disc because the footage was recorded off of a Steenbeck flatbed editing machine with a half-inch video camera. The scenes are not available to access individually and are presented as a single reel. You can see why they were deleted in the first place but their presence among the bonus features is a welcome inclusion.
Also new to this Blu-ray is an interview with musician Phil Anselmo of the bands Pantera, Superjoint Ritual, and Down (10 minutes). Anselmo worked on The Manson Family composing original music for the soundtrack and providing the voice of Satan. He talks about how he first encountered VanBebber and ultimately came to create new music for the movie as it was languishing without completion funds or a distributor.
The last of the new extras is "Gator Green" (16 minutes), a horror short made last year by VanBebber using funds raised from Kickstarter that premiered during a recent limited theatrical release of The Manson Family. The story was inspired by the dark legend of Joe Ball, a serial killer in Texas who murdered somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty women during the 1930's and supposedly disposed of their bodies by feeding them to alligators he kept as pets in a pond near a saloon he owned and operated. The same tale also gave rise to the 1976 Tobe Hooper horror flick Eaten Alive. VanBebber's take on the story moves the action to Florida in the 1970's and the director stars as the leader of a group of crazed Vietnam vets who carve up hippies and drug dealers and feed their remains to gators they laughingly dub "gooks". It's a twisted and gory romp that has a vein of bizarre humor running through it, and the gruesome effects are wonderfully cheap and nasty. Visually, Gator Green resembles some weird ass little flick dug up and digitized by Something Weird Video. The picture is grainy and bright and you get to see low angle shots of women with massive public mounds erupting out of their bikini bottoms like Fangorn Forest. It's the most purely entertaining thing VanBebber has made since Deadbeat at Dawn and I hope he gets to turn it into a full-blown feature film someday.
Held over from Dark Sky's earlier DVD edition, "The VanBebber Family" (77 minutes) is a documentary about the long journey of The Manson Family from idea to principal photography to festival screenings to finally seeing a theatrical and home video release. The director and every member of the cast and crew willing to participate are interviewed in great detail. Only Games, who has disavowed himself from the movie permanently it seems, is noticeably absent. The documentary is exhaustive with discussions about the initial production in 1988, resuming the shoot whenever money became available, filming the many scenes of explicit sex and violence, and the final film's reception and legacy. There are a ton of great anecdotes shared and almost every interviewee has something to say about the film's thematic content. Though the production didn't exactly go very smooth few of those involved have anything remotely discouraging to say about working with VanBebber. Combined with the director's insightful commentary, this is the final word on The Manson Family and it is one of the finest documentaries ever made about independent filmmaking.
"In the Belly of the Beast" (74 minutes) is another feature-length documentary that made its first appearance on past DVDs on The Manson Family. In July 1997 the Fant-Asia Film Festival was held in Montreal and VanBebber was there to screen an early cut of his film (when it was still called Charlie's Family). Also screening at the festival were the films A Gun for Jennifer, Subconscious Cruelty, Nacho Cerda's short film Aftermath, and Richard Stanley's director's cut of Dust Devil. The filmmakers are interviewed separately and often together about making their films, their ambitions and dreams, and debating the merits of the works done by their competitors. Though the pacing is slow what each participant has to say is usually very frank and smart and this documentary gives us an overturned rock look at the independent horror filmmaking scene in the 1990's and allows us to compare it to what the scene looks like today.
A ten minute interview with the real Manson that appeared in the documentary Charles Manson Superstar and was part of the supplements package in the early Dark Sky DVD is included here in its raw, unedited form. It's more tiresome than unnerving, but just try taking your eyes off the guy. Red and green band trailers for The Manson Family from 2003 and 2013 and a two-minute promotional reel close out the extras.
The Manson Family is an unforgettable viewing experience that stands with In Cold Blood and The Onion Field among the best true crime films ever made but also exists in a class all its own. Packed with new and existing bonus features and a stellar high-definition upgrade Severin’s Blu-ray release is an essential buy for fans of the genre and aspiring independent filmmakers who will most likely never have it as rough as Jim VanBebber did when he made the film.