The Manson Family is a 2003 American true crime horror film written and directed by Jim Van Bebber. The film covers the lives of Charles Manson and his “family” of followers.
The film had a long and troubled production history. Director Jim Van Bebber personally financed the production starting in 1988, and then continued to shoot it sporadically on weekends and off days. In 1998, Creation Books published Charlie’s Family: An Illustrated Screenplay, in the UK.
Despite support from various people, including members of the band Skinny Puppy, who provided a musical score (in the form of Download’s Charlie’s Family album) that was released separately years before the film itself, the film remained incomplete. It screened on video as a work-in-progress at a number of film festivals during that time. Phil Anselmo of rock bands Pantera, Down, and Superjoint Ritual provided his voice as Satan.
The Manson Family is a cross between fictional story and documentary, overseeing the crimes of The Manson Family as led by Charlie Manson. The fictional story centers on a Crime Scene-esque TV series of the same name and its host, Jack Wilson (Carl Day). It is filmed in semi-experimental style and focuses on the early days of the Spahn Ranch including Manson’s attempts to record a music album, and the Manson family crimes, with little emphasis on courtroom drama regarding the trial, although some scenes depict Manson’s follower’s outside the courthouse.
Dark Sky Films stepped in with the funds to finish the film properly, and it has since been released theatrically and on home video. On June 11, 2013, Severin Films released a 10th Anniversary Blu-ray + DVD combo. This includes:
- Audio Commentary with Director Jim VanBebber
- Gator Green – Exclusive First Release of VanBebber’s latest short
- Exclusive New Interview With Phil Anselmo
- The VanBebber Family – Uncut Version of ‘Making Of’ Documentary Featuring Interviews with Cast and Crew
- In The Belly of The Beast – Documentary On the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival
- Interview With Charles Manson
- Deleted Scenes
- Theatrical Trailers
Begun in 1992, with Jim Van Bebber pretty hot in no-budget terms after gang warfare pic Deadbeat at Dawn‘s success, Charlie’s Family – now retitled The Manson Family because many moviegoers are, after all, morons who need things spelling out to them – remained in an unfinished limbo due to its headcase director’s incarceration in prison; substance abuse and psychotic tendencies contributing to the interminable delay.
Inevitably, when finally confronted with a film surrounded by so many rumours and wild claims there is the risk of disappointment. Perhaps what is so surprising about The Manson Family is how relatively formal it is in narrative structure. A loose framing story about a reporter interviewing ex-Family members holds together wild recreations of the original crimes and the current-day shenanigans of a copycat cult. Impressive space is given to motivation of the Family and to charting the development of their murderous hate campaign.
Of course, Charlie himself (Marcelo Games) takes centre stage and here Games looks and acts the part well. Indeed, what most impresses is the obvious care taken to create a fact driven take on the Manson era and its legacy. All this is backed up by an experimental, industrial and metal soundtrack – much of it delivered by assorted Phil Anselmo projects.
Stylistically, The Manson Family is highly adventurous – like a forerunner to Natural Born Killers – with jump cuts and differing film stock making the potent mix seem more like a documentary than a grisly re-enactment of carnage. Particularly disturbing are segments portraying the modern Manson influenced cult. Footage is shown in reverse as cult members self-mutilate and jack-up, creating a disorientating feel. Trippy, sex-laced segments from the Sixties, along with verite style interviews increases the tension. The violence itself is rough with multiple gory stabbings, shootings and beatings creating a charnel house atmosphere. The infamous Tate murders sequence is virtually unwatchable, with throats sliced wide, skulls caved in and.. yes, worse!
The Manson Family is a vicious little whirlwind of a film and Van Bebber has an energetic style reminiscent of a younger Sam Raimi, without the black humour, yet with a distinctly nasty streak. In short, exactly what the world of exploitation film needs! For once, believe the hype…
Will Holland, MOV!ES and MAN!A
“All this excessive bloodshed has a point though; it’s never intended as gratuitous shock tactics. In a manner analogous to John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the unsparing violence is meant to demystify and de-glamorize acts of carnal savagery that otherwise might register as little more than the routine slaughter found in your average slasher film. Violence, Van Bebber wants to say, is always ugly.” Budd Wilkins, Slant
“What Van Bebber does accomplish is to make a film true to its subject. It doesn’t bring reason, understanding, analysis or empathy to Manson; it wants only to evoke him. It is not pro-Manson, simply convinced of the power he had over those people at that time. In a paradoxical way, it exhibits sympathy for his victims by showing their deaths in such horrifying detail.” Roger Ebert
“The greatest success of the film is actually that of the generally almost forgotten deaths of the LaBianca’s later that night (which have become almost an afterthought due to the ‘fame’ of the ‘Tate Murders’) which are covered in truly horrific detail and in fact their deaths are the hardest to watch of all, the brutal, sadistic multiple stab wound demise of Mrs LaBianca (even to the grotesque desecration of her body by uncovering, and then stabbing, her naked buttocks) is in fact by far the most explicit and uncomfortable death in the whole film.” Beardy Freak
“The film actually looks like all of those terrible 60s grindhouse movies, with deliberately mismatched 16mm film stock, and drug scenes straight out of Alice in Acidland. However, this is a film with a deadly serious intent, sucking the viewer into the free love and drugs ethos of the 60s. We watch how this dream turns into a nightmare of grotesque violence, all at the hands of a very convincing Charlie Manson.” Tony O’Neill, The Guardian
Main cast and characters:
- Marcello Games as Charlie Manson
- Marc Pitman as Tex Watson
- Leslie Orr as Patty Krenwinkel
- Maureen Allisse as Sadie Atkins
- Amy Yates as Leslie Van Houten
- Jim Van Bebber as Bobby
- Tom Burns as Clem Watkins
- Michelle Briggs as Linda Kasabian
- Sherri Rickman as Snake
- Nate Pennington as Shorty
- Carl Day as Jack Wilson
- Corral Day as Franklin Riley
Read article: Coming Down Fast – Charles Manson on Screen