It took renegade auteur Jim Van Bebber over 10 years to complete his sleaze opus, The Manson Family. The project has built up a cult reputation over that time, at least within the underground community. Indeed, with its faded film stock and deliberately scratchy print, it looks like it was left in the grindhouse archive since the summer of love. The unbearably graphic depictions of the Tate and LaBianca murders, which comprise most of the film’s final act, may whet the appetite of exploitation fans, but what really sustains interest in Van Bebber’s transgressive true-crime flick is his ability to dramatize how the murderers got there. It’s an uneasy identification, but one that represents how playfully tripped out life was on Manson’s home base of Spahn Ranch. The free-spirited sex n’ drugs allure of counter-culture gave his “children” a sense of ideological freedom. And by keeping Charlie (Marcello Games) in the background, mostly representing him as a pint-sized egomaniac who wishes he could be a rock star, Van Bebber focuses on the aspirations and confused motivations of this mad guru’s flock.
Van Bebber rubs the viewer’s nose in all manner of degradation, from group orgies to performance art bacchanals, and somewhere along the way it stops being fun for the kids (and the spectator). Titillation and drive-in exploitation tactics are readily employed to keep the viewer watching, with a filmmaking approach coasting along in a psychedelic documentary mode. Unlike Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, though, Van Bebber never attempts broad satirical potshots (at least until an unnecessary epilogue, which mocks the glib mentality of “Charlie Don’t Surf” poseurs). As the kids descend into murder and madness, Van Bebber unflinchingly stays along for the ride. He doesn’t arouse sympathy for killers, instead examining how Manson’s groupthink distorted left-wing idealism into savage violence.
The viewer may wonder how they’re meant to benefit from this would-be freak show, and what catharsis is to be had from wallowing in its graphic gore. Like the best scenes in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left or all of Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Manson Family places horror in our face in a way a glib depiction of human tragedy like Pearl Harbor does not. In Michael Bay’s loathsome sanitization of mass death, Kate Beckinsale’s war nurse sulks to her boyfriend, “Everything was going so well, and then this happened.” It sounds like one of the sick lines of dialogue Van Bebber delivers to Charlie’s Family. Or, for another Bay misfire, the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s slick MTV camera glides through a bullet hole in a victim’s forehead. Somehow, that seems more offensive than the scene where one of Manson’s followers pulls down a dead victim’s pants and stabs them repeatedly in the ass. It’s all about context: Manson Family recognizes the darkest parts of our selves. You might say it’s the part in us susceptible to poisonous thoughts and false ideals.
It may seem odd to consider image quality in a movie that's deliberately made to look like a drive-in movie of yesteryear, but The Manson Family seems to be presented in exactly the way Van Bebber wanted. The shifts in film stock and radically disorienting sound design are unerringly specific, and well represented here.
No commentary from Jim Van Bebber, though he is remarkably articulate in a documentary entitled "The Van Bebber Family" which relays this project's interesting history. Van Bebber's talent at working with actors isn't limited to his ability to get them naked (he was right along with them as a co-star). It's clear from the get-go that he had a vision for the movie that he could articulate to his collaborators in front of and behind the screen. With the intense bearing of a veteran combined with a folksy charm, it's easy to see how his gang followed him into this strange cult classic. In interviews included on the documentary, the cast members don't shy away from voicing their frustrations at how long the movie took to complete (10 years plus). Van Bebber has a vast knowledge of Manson case details, including some controversial opinions about the non-fiction book Helter Skelter. A second documentary, "In the Belly of the Beast," shows a younger Van Bebber circulating his film as a work-in-progress at Montreal's Fant-Asia Film Festival. Clips from Van Bebber's previous films are shown, but, sadly, his short subjects aren't included. The documentary also follows compelling filmmakers from the underground like controversial figure Nacho Cerda (best known for the shocking but challenging corpse-fucking short Aftermath) and a glum, just-fired from Island of Dr. Moreau Richard Stanley. The doc balances the justification for bold artistic statements with the foolish go-for-broke reality of making transgressive cinema. Finally, an interview with Charles Manson is included, despite Van Bebber's clear statement that he doesn't want to be pen pals with Manson or anyone in his sinister fold.
The Manson Family isn't for the faint of heart, but for those willing to take the plunge this is the definitive DVD treatment.