I remember Jim van Bebber trying to secure funding for a movie called CHARLIE’S FAMILY back in the late 1980s, after his grim and dirty DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988) finally saw the light of day. Well it would appear Mr van Bebber finally got the project made, as CHARLIE’S FAMILY is the title on the front credits here. I’m guessing the movie got retitled in case unsuspecting enthusiasts of truly mind-rotting rubbish picked it up thinking it was the latest Adam Sandler comedy.
THE MANSON FAMILY aims to tell you, through a narrative that’s a bit convoluted and sometimes confusing if you’re not already familiar with what happened, how Charles Manson (Marcelo Games), cult leader and general loony, caused members of his ‘family’ (ie the ragtag collection of young losers, drop-outs and drug addicts that he gathered around him at an isolated ranch location) to perpetrate the Tate / LaBianca murders in 1969 in Los Angeles. The information is presented in the form of recreated scenes as well as a number of talking head interviews that are themselves part of a wraparound narrative taking place in 1995, where a television producer is watching a video cassette that has been sent to him.
I’m not much of an expert on the Manson story, but fortunately I happened to watch this in the company of Lady Probert aka Thana Niveau who, having read Helter Skelter and knowing a lot more about the Manson murders than I do, assured me that THE MANSON FAMILY depicts character and events with almost painstaking detail. The film draws you in to the Family’s world of madness and drug-fuelled orgies, and van Bebber’s style is so spot on that you begin to wonder if perhaps he’s a bit mad himself. Just as you think the film is getting carried away with naked orgies and demonic visions, everything slows down in the most awful way possible to depict the murders in graphic detail. This really is where THE MANSON FAMILY comes into its own, both as a piece of extreme cinema and as a piece of very effective and memorable film-making. The death scenes are cringe-inducing and horrible, but are never filmed or treated in an exploitative or sensationalist manner. In fact at no point in the film is it suggested that being part of Charlie’s rather twisted world would actually be an enjoyable experience. Rather one gets the impression that this is as accurate a reproduction of one of America’s most infamous crimes that we are probably ever going to see. It doesn’t make for pleasant viewing, and I’m only going to recommend this one to the sort of hardy individuals who coped with MARTYRS and A SERBIAN FILM.
It’s pleasing to see that Severin’s UK Blu-ray and DVD release has been granted a certificate 18 with no cuts (to do otherwise would have been a bit of an insult to all concerned). Because there’s very much of an archival feel to a lot of the footage the Blu-ray transfer doesn’t make a lot of difference to the image. Extras include a commentary track from van Bebber, a 75 minute ‘Making Of’ documentary with cast and crew, deleted scenes, trailers, and an archival interview with Mr Manson himself. Best of all, and the bit you have to watch if you get this disk, is GATOR GREEN, a 16 minute short that Jim van Bebber hopes to expand into his next feature. It’s gleefully outrageous - a bit like if John Waters had been forced to fight in Vietnam and returned home to make movies influenced by his experiences. If nothing else, on the basis of both GATOR GREEN and THE MANSON FAMILY Jim van Bebber is possibly mad or a genius. I rather hope he’s both. Approach with caution, but if you are of a mind for this kind of thing, definitely approach.
Severin Films released The Manson Family on Blu-ray & DVD on 10th June 2013