The Manson Family (2003) Movie Review

The release of “The Manson Family” marks for cult underground director Jim Van Bebber (who made a name for himself with the brutal “Deadbeat at Dawn”) the end of a struggle which, incredibly, began back in 1988 when financing ran out during the film’s principal photography. After more than a decade of false starts and botched deals, not to mention the continuity nightmare of watching his lead actors age, it is remarkable, and indeed a tribute to Van Bebber’s inhuman persistence, that the film has actually been finished at all. Made for next to nothing, and in an uncompromising visual and visceral style, “The Manson Family” is a true work of passion and self-belief, and as such represents filmmaking at its most pure, unfettered by financial or commercial considerations.

Of course, there is very little about the film itself which could actually be described as ‘pure’, being an extreme slice of transgressive cinema which explores the infamous crimes of Charles Manson and his followers. Unlike many of the exploitation howlers made in the 1970s which sought mainly to exploit the shocking details of the case, cashing in on a then-current issue for trashy entertainment, Van Bebber’s film comes along decades after the fact, though at a time when Manson’s name still holds sway over many disenfranchised young people. By casting a non-judgmental eye over the events leading up to the bloody killings, and by faithfully recreating the drug-addled, orgiastic life of the titular ‘family’ through interviews, flashbacks and documentary-style techniques, the result is a raw, disturbing and at times nauseating film which harks back to the classic days of grind house cinema, and which underlines how far from true horror so many of today’s genre efforts really are.

The film’s narrative has two strands, between which it switches back and forth. The first takes place in the present day, as a group of nihilistic punks plan the murder of a local television crime show host who is making a documentary about Manson. The bulk of the film, thankfully, is taken up with the actual story of Manson and his followers, showing the most important and indeed infamous aspects of their evolution from flower-power children of free love and LSD to paranoid psychopaths, through to their brief but bloody rampage as would-be societal terrorists.

Van Bebber structures the film in an ambitious and complex fashion, mixing in a variety of interviews and recreations that are linked thematically rather than chronologically. A great deal of the proceedings is filmed in faux documentary style, at times complete with mock-grain added onto the film stock, which gives it an air of gritty authenticity. This is accentuated by the viewer’s knowledge that what they are seeing, for the most part at least, actually happened, and although Van Bebber has quite obviously made his own interpretations of some events and the motivations behind them, they never fail to ring true. As such, the film works as a fascinating portrait of real life crime and as a snapshot of a unique moment in time, rather than a traditional narrative with sympathetic characters.

There is a tense, crazed atmosphere throughout “The Manson Family”, and Van Bebber never allows the viewer to feel comfortable or in control. As the characters degenerate, he utilises a number of techniques to represent the characters’ descent into madness and murder, with some dizzying editing and hallucinogenic use of light filters and camera speeds. There are some truly nightmarish and disorientating scenes where the director assaults the senses, skilfully forcing the viewer to actually share in the characters’ drug-fuelled horror. Whether or not the viewer would wish to have such an experience is of course questionable. However, Van Bebber’s skill during such scenes is undeniable and far more effective than the usual cliché of genre cinema, which mistakes throwing in loud noises and fast editing in place of an actual feeling of dread.

“The Manson Family” is an incredibly graphic and visceral film, with some extremely bloody carnage that is not for the faint of heart. Although the budget was obviously close to non-existent, Van Bebber still manages to throw in a great deal of realistic gore, shying away from none of the gruesome details of the crimes. There is an incredible amount of sex and nudity, with the majority of the cast spending the film naked. However, none of this comes across as gratuitous, or indeed particularly erotic, being instead a realistic depiction of the cultists’ way of life.

The film does have its faults, mainly in the fact that the scenes set in the present day are nowhere near as interesting as those which focus on Manson, and at times feel tacked on and entirely superfluous. Similarly, some viewers may feel let down by the fact that Van Bebber never really tries to get inside the minds of the characters, and that by simply reporting their actions, he misses the opportunity for what could have been an intense psychological study of madness. However, whilst this may be true, the film’s main purpose is not to explain or justify, but to recreate the crimes themselves, and to actually transport the viewer into their midst. As such, “The Manson Family” is a brave, remarkable piece of brutal, mind-altering horror, in which director Van Bebber succeeds in transcending the limitations not only of his low budget, but also of the genre itself.

Jim Van Bebber (director) / Jim Van Bebber (screenplay)
CAST: Marcelo Games …. Charlie
Marc Pitman …. Tex
Leslie Orr …. Patty
Maureen Allisse …. Sadie
Amy Yates …. Leslie
Jim Van Bebber …. Bobby
Tom Burns …. Clem
Michelle Briggs …. Linda

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