In a more rational world, the release of Jim VanBebber’s debut feature Deadbeat At Dawn (1988) would’ve had Hollywood executives scrabbling for their cheque books, eager to ensnare the talents of a young indie director who, on a miniscule budget, managed to stage hyper-adrenalised fight/stunt scenes that made mega-budget action movies seem listless and impotent. Then again, there was something about Deadbeat At Dawn that strongly suggested VanBebber could never be a mere lapdog for a Beverley Hills paymaster – a pungent aroma of punk subversion, the nihilistic wallowing in urban squalor, techniques and values ripped straight from the wildest, most confrontational exploitation cinema. In fact, seeing VanBebber as the film’s frequently bloodied protagonist, genuinely putting his body through the grinder in the name of art, was probably enough to convince talent scouts that this was a volatile, uncompromising individual, someone who would be too difficult to manage.
The Ohio-based film-maker persevered, working with shoestring budgets and creating the harrowing short-form hallucinations Roadkill: The Last Days Of John Martin (1994) and My Sweet Satan (1994), as well as a promising promo reel for a Manson clan biopic Charlie’s Family, touted as his next major project. Efforts to advance production of the feature were hampered by long-term financial difficulties but the director was finally able to assemble sufficient footage to persuade Blue Underground to contribute the necessary funds to enable its completion by 2003. The lengthy gestation period inevitably created a potential for crippling continuity problems; the ageing of actors and possible inconsistencies in VanBebber’s vision. But, due to an era-vaulting structure which allows for variance in time settings – notably the shift between late 60’s Spahn ranch footage and the more recent faux-interview segments – the finished film hangs together seamlessly.
The Manson Family’s idiosyncratic format – a fake documentary / experimental film / hardcore exploitation hybrid – is constructed around a late 90’s-based scenario in which a TV journalist prepares for the screening of his documentary on the case while a local group of rivethead Manson acolytes engage in snuff movie-making and hard drug abuse, clearly plotting some horrendous act of ultra-violence. However, these brief scenes function as a framing device for the main content: reconstructions of late 60’s life at cult HQ, Spahn Ranch – from scavenging for food in supermarket bins to drug-fuelled, blood-splattered orgies – and the sickening acts of murder that made the name Manson an international byword for undiluted evil.
With lurid psychedelic hues and grotesque puppets straight out of Timothy Leary’s worst nightmares, it’s clear from the very start that VanBebber’s approach will be heavily stylised. Much of the running time is peppered with images of lysergic surrealism designed to jolt the senses and evoke the bad-trip haze of the family’s daily existence. In his aggressive attempts to unsettle, confuse, and stimulate, VanBebber employs a wide array of old-school experimental film techniques – frozen-frames, kaleidoscopic optical effects, rapid-fire editing, artificially-aged celluloid – all serving to make The Manson Family a dizzying, visually captivating experience. That VanBebber was clearly untroubled by potential accusations of excessive self-indulgence is testament to his maverick spirit.
Even long before the excruciating protracted violence of the last third, there’s a palpable tension that permeates every frame. The sun-drenched rural sex scenes have a fleeting pastoral beauty; the late 60’s free love ideal presented as idyllic, almost wholesome, until the leering camera brings attention to animalistic rutting and contorted faces. A hint of the psychotic depravity to come. The gang rape of a naïve local girl is the first nauseating taste of the group’s proclivity towards sadistic cruelty. Saturated in demonic crimson, the scene focuses intimately on the victim’s agonised face, the hysterical laughter of the female participants making an already vile spectacle unbearable. The savagery of the Manson women is a key theme. Leslie Orr as Patty Krenwinkel is unnerving and fascinating to watch. Her mannered yet nuanced performance makes for a convincing portrayal of an individual who has expunged all traces of human warmth to become a seething mouthpiece for the Manson doctrine and a blood-hungry sadist. The character’s unfettered glee during the most violent scenes is chilling in the extreme.
The group’s murder of pregnant film actress Sharon Tate and houseguests is presented in unflinching detail and must surely rank as one of cinema’s most traumatic sequences. As with Deadbeat At Dawn, VanBebber concentrates on the sheer savagery of the act rather than relying on prosthetics and anatomically-correct show-stopping gore effects. Victims are stabbed repeatedly with frenzied force, skulls are smashed open with handguns. Although the violence is dressed in psychedelic gel-lighting, the grisly rawness on display makes these images feel authentic, leaving an impact that lasts long after the credits have rolled. VanBebber seemingly wants to rub our noses in the senseless slaughter, perhaps as a pointed contrast to the comparatively frivolous way mainstream cinema deals with depicting violence. We are made to feel deep empathy for Tate as she pleads for the life of her unborn child, and the mortally-wounded victim who makes pathetic unsuccessful attempts to clamber onto her bed to die. Moments like these should also make owners of Charles Manson T-shirts feel more than a little uncomfortable. With the passage of time, Manson’s iconic visage has become separated from the crimes with which he was associated. Here, VanBebber forcefully reminds us of the casualties behind the ‘countercultural’ merchandise.
The media’s fixation on Charles Manson over and above the more culpable parties created a convenient bogeyman for the public to despise and in later years, for a minority to hail as a underground anti-hero. VanBebber’s film seeks to redress the balance. The Manson character is portrayed as an inspirational figurehead but a bit-player in the acts upon which his notoriety was founded. Whether by design or as a consequence of actor Marcelo Games’ limited man-hours on the project, Manson himself is conspicuous by his brief screen-time. Although Games’ performance lacks the authoritative magnetism which might explain the group’s devotion, this is surprisingly non-detrimental to the film. In fact, running contrary to the popular belief that the leader brainwashed young innocents into committing heinous acts, the approach serves to highlight the extent of each member’s personal responsibility for their actions.
The faux-interviews with key family members, as based on the director’s extensive research, offer some intriguing insight. Naturalistic performances and a fabricated archive TV aesthetic lend verisimilitude, while the thoughtfully selected and placed soundbites illuminate aspects of cult life and the moral standpoint of the members – some remorseful, others defiant – as they reflect on the events of 69. Most jarring of all is the sight of born-again Christian Tex Watson (Marc Pitman) calmly recalling his significant role while standing in a church, seemingly dressed as priest.
Less successful are the framing scenes where late 90’s degenerates go about their depraved business in some ersatz dungeon. The shopping list of perversity on display seems too self-consciously designed to shock, and there’s something irritatingly nerdish about the characters, giving their subversive, violent acts a hollow ring. The climatic TV studio invasion would be enjoyable in another context but it’s too slick and cartoonish coming so soon after the gritty Tate/LaBianca murder scenes.
Challenging, devastatingly visceral, and relentlessly experimental; The Manson Family is the kind of radical project that mainstream studios would refuse to fund. The road to completion may have been long and riddled with adversity, but if VanBebber had sacrificed his independence for a more commercial path, a true exploitation cinema original would never have seen the light of day. Highly recommended.