Coming Down Fast: Charles Manson on Screen – article

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Given Hollywood’s obsession with ‘true crime’, it’s perhaps fitting that some of the most notorious murders in history took place smack in the centre of movie land, and involved a bright young film actress. When Charlie Manson’s deluded followers broke into 10050 Cielo Drive and brutally slaughtered the occupants – including pregnant Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski – it not only struck fear into the heart of America, but also seemed like something out of a horror movie.

And when, months later, Manson and his followers were arrested, they were every bit as bizarre, scary and deranged as any celluloid psycho. While most serial killers and mass murderers are worrying ordinary, Manson was a wild-eyed maniac, a hippy cult leader who lived with his followers – The Family – in the desert, making plans to survive the coming race war he was convinced was imminent.

Helter Skelter (1976)
Helter Skelter (1976)

The Family was straight out of the movies – middle-class kids converted into free-lovin’ psycho-killin’ revolutionaries. Hell, they even lived on an old movie set, the Spahn Ranch. Directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis would recall seeing the family hanging around as they shot cheap westerns on that very location.

And like every good Californian, Manson had dreams of stardom. Music was his main bag, and he even wrote a song for The Beach Boys and cut an album (unreleased before his arrest; now available on CD). But the Family had stolen a van full of TV equipment, and rumours were rife of the outrageous stuff they filmed. These lost films were spirited away, the legend goes, by Family members who avoided arrest and buried out in the desert. The only Family footage confirmed to exist is pretty tame – naked hippies skinny-dipping and living the communal life. But the myth of Manson’s snuff movies goes on.

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Hollywood felt somewhat sensitive about the Manson case – after all, it had affected their own community – but public fascination speaks louder than community spirit, and the story had Motion Picture written all over it.

In the last thirty-five years, numerous films have been made which were inspired, directly or otherwise, by the story. And as you might expect from a case which seemed stranger than fiction and which has never fully been explained, the movies all had their own take on events.

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One of the first films to retell the story was shot while the trial was still underway. The Other Side of Madness, directed by Frank Howard, is a bizarre retelling of the story – taken from newspaper reports – and manages to tread a fine line between art and exploitation. Shot in black and white (apart from one brief scene), the film is both fascinating and frustrating, managing to capture the vibe of the times and recreate both the lives of the Family and their crimes perfectly (if not entirely accurately)… but also managing to be slow-moving and repetitive.

There are several plus points besides the on-the-spot sense of realism – the crisp look of the film, the excellent, bad-trip soundtrack and the inclusion of one of Manson’s own songs – Mechanical Man – on the soundtrack all make this stand out as one of the more interesting Manson movies.

Interestingly – and presumably for legal reasons – none of the characters are ever referred to by name in the movie… but everyone knew exactly who it was about! Also known as The Manson Massacre, the US DVD has been retitled The Helter Skelter Murders, leading to some confusion amongst idiots who thought they were buying the TV movie Helter Skelter.

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Yes, the Manson story made it to the TV in 1976 as a two-part mini-series. The film was based on the book of the same name by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and therefore presents a somewhat skewed version of events. In the book, Bugliosi self-aggrandises shamelessly, and the film similarly presents him in an overly heroic light. As the title suggests, it also places undue emphasis on Manson’s obsession with The Beatles, and their White Album in particular. Bugliosi managed to successfully argue that Manson had gained his crackpot theories about Race War from the lyrics to songs on the album, and referred to the coming apocalypse as “Helter Skelter” (one of the better songs on the LP). Certainly, an illiterate version of the phrase (‘Healter Skelter’) was daubed in blood on the walls of the crime scene, as were reference to ‘Pigs’… another Beatles reference apparently. Other people have disputed this connection.

Helter Skelter starred Steve Railsback as a particular wild-eyed Manson, and also included The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s Marilyn Burns in the cast. As a piece of courtroom drama, it’s passable stuff, but ultimately no more accurate than any other made-for-TV true crime film. Interestingly, it was remade in 2004 as a TV movie, and an extended (i.e. stronger) version of this retread is available on DVD in the States.

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The only other film to deal explicitly with the Manson case during the 1970’s was the documentary Manson, made in 1972 by Lawrence Merrick, in association with producer Robert Hendrickson. As well as featuring footage taken during the court case – where Manson could be relied on to mug wildly for TV cameras and trot out a series of cod-philosophical nonsense whilst simultaneously sabotaging his own defence – the film is notable for having extensive access to Family members who were still at liberty. It’s a mistake to believe that all Manson Family members were convicted of the murders – most were not involved, and remained free to hold vigils outside the court and lodge pointless protests to anyone who would listen.manson_poster_02

Merrick’s film is at its most unsettling when interviewing Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sandra Good, two Mansonites who maintained their fervent belief in their leader even after he was imprisoned and the Family effectively broken up. These thoroughly wholesome, sweet looking girls tote assault rifles and continue to preach Manson’s brand of psycho-babble throughout their interviews. Squeaky would later prove that she didn’t just talk the talk, by pulling a gun on President Gerald Ford in the mid-Seventies and thus becoming the last Family member to secure a life sentence.

Worryingly, Sandra Good appeared on a British TV documentary in the late Nineties, still acting as a Manson apologist/groupie. Equally worrying is the fact that Merrick was shot dead in 1977. Stories that his movie had upset Family members abounded. Of course, by 1977, the family no longer existed, but Manson’s cult status had begun to attract new nihilistic supporters, and a link between Manson fanatics and Merrick’s death has never been ruled out.

It was the new breed of Manson fan which would begin to explore his story on film in the 1980’s and 90’s. Some of Manson’s supporters were intelligent, thoughtful people who pointed out that Manson hadn’t actually killed anyone (this was disingenuous – he was certainly responsible for at least one killing, though probably in self-defence) and that there was no real proof that he had instigated the murders carried out by his LSD-crazed followers. Most though were simply ghoulish, socially inept losers who had some misguided admiration for the nutty guru. Inevitably, their films would be a mix of tasteless revelling in death and half-baked revisionist apologia.

John Aes-Nihil (not his real name) ran a mail-order business selling Manson, true crime and occult merchandise, and in 1984 shot Manson Family Movies – a zero-budget, 8mm attempt to show what may have been shot using that stolen TV equipment. Lacking focus (in all senses of the word) and overly salacious, the film nevertheless has a certain effectiveness – it definitely looks like home movies shot by amateurs. With copyright-flouting music by Pink Floyd and The Beatles on the soundtrack, the film has never been widely released.

Better made but less interesting is Charles Manson Superstar, made in 1989 by Nicholas Schreck (again, not his real name!). Schreck had previously published The Manson Files, a pro-Manson collection of essays, and had some involvement with the Church of Satan before being booted out. The film is little more than an interview with Manson, who by the end of the Eighties should’ve known better than to appear in front of cameras – the wizened old nutter seen ranting incoherently here does little for the Manson mythology. Schreck maintains Manson’s innocence throughout, even suggesting that he is a political prisoner, but the film fails to convince the viewer of anything other than the fact that if Manson can still command such an unquestioning following, maybe he is better kept locked up.

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Outside the movies directly based on Manson, there are several films which lift the basic facts of the case and weave a fiction around them. Charismatic and dangerous hippy cult leaders could be seen in the softcore sexploitation film Gabrielle (which features a mad doctor called Matson who heads a group called The Family), I Drink Your Blood (with a bloodthirsty gang of rabid hippies), Deathmaster (in which Count Yorga star Robert Quarry plays a hippy cult leader who is a vampire!), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (where Manson murder references are weaved into the convoluted plot), The Night God Screamed (more hippy cult leaders) and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which adds a dedication to Family members to its roll-call of outrage. The films which came closest to the truth were The Love-Thrill Murders and Snuff.

The Love-Thrill Murders (aka Sweet Saviour) was shot in 1971, and if the title didn’t tell people what to expect, the plot would have seemed familiar. Here, the cult leader is called Moon, and is played by former teen idol Troy Donahoe. Set in New York, the film follows the basic facts of the Manson case pretty closely.

Snuff began life as Slaughter, and was shot by husband and wife team Michael and Roberta Findlay, already veterans of the sleaze scene by the time they lensed this movie in 1971. They cobbled together a story which retold the events in the most simplistic way, changed names to avoid lawsuits and scurried off to Argentina, where film crews – if not life – were certainly cheap. The finished film was somewhat lacking in many areas. Sound for instance, as the movie had been shot without sync sound and had to be dubbed later. Any sense of being watchable is the other main missing ingredient.

No-one wanted Slaughter, and so it sat on the shelf for the next five years. Until distributor Allan Shackleton decided to cash in on newspaper stories about so-called ‘snuff movies‘ – films in which the performers were actually murdered (ironically, the term ‘snuff movie’ first appeared in Ed Sanders; definitive Manson book The Family).

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Shackleton removed the end of Slaughter and hired a studio belonging to adult movie director Carter Stevens to film a new climax, supposedly showing a real murder (it was, in fact, directed by Simon Nuchtern, who later directed Silent Madness). Suffice to say, no-one with a scrap of intelligence would have been fooled.

As it stands now, Snuff is a very dull film which will frustrate the handful of people who actually find the story interesting by finishing before the end. For all the notoriety, it has scant sex and violence – even the tacked on ending is pretty tame – and as these are the only possible elements that would make it interesting, the movie stands as a real test of stamina for viewers. I’d suggest that if you do watch it, skip straight to the last five minutes, check out what all the fuss is about and then find something better to do.

Manson was a British TV docudrama that mixed a decent if not exactly groundbreaking look at the Family and the killings with an interview with Linda Kasabian, the Mansonite ‘turncoat’ who was present at the killings but escaped prison by giving evidence for the prosecution. As you might expect, the interview is rather self-serving, emphasising her unawareness of what was going on (though notably, she took part in the cover-up of the crime and stayed part of the family afterward). The most effective part of the film is, perhaps, the early scenes that give a sense of normality to the Family – most films have gone for the creepy-crawly crazy from the off, but clearly, there were times of genuine love, peace and community before the madness started.

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The same year saw Leslie, My Name is Evil (later changed, for obvious reasons, to Manson, My Name is Evil and released in the UK as Manson Girl), which told the unlikely and rather uninteresting story of a jury member who falls in love with Mansonite Leslie Van Houten during the trial in a satirical, not entirely successful look at the trial and the impact of the killings on ‘straight’ American society. Also released in 2009, Manson Then and Now is another opportunist and uninformative feature-length documentary.

And so we come to The Manson Family, the most controversial recent retelling of the story. This exhaustive movie was a labour of love for director Jim VanBebber, who struggled for over a decade to complete it. Few people ever thought it would go beyond the ‘rough cut’ which played at several film festivals under the original title Charlie’s Family, but in 2002, Blue Underground stumped up the remaining several grand to finish the edit and sound mix.

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After spending so much time on the film, VanBebber must have been gutted to read the UK press reviews, which universally slated it as amateurish, offensive and worthless. Of course, we should never listen to the cries of poncey mainstream hacks, and The Manson Family is nowhere near the unmitigated disaster that they suggest. Certainly, it has its faults, the most damaging being a subplot set in the modern day and featuring a bunch of stoners who worship Manson.

It’s a fault of VanBebber’s that he can’t seem to resist the urge to throw in gratuitous gore and these scenes add nothing – in fact, they distract the viewer from what otherwise is an ambitious, fascinating and sometimes brilliant film. VanBebber’s use of mixed-media (possibly as much out of necessity as for artistic reasons) certainly gives the film an immediacy and rawness that makes it stand out.

The superfluous scenes mean that The Manson Family isn’t quite the definitive Manson movie, though. We’ve yet to see that, and it’s possible that we never will. As recently as 2011, there were three Manson movies in the pipeline (all have yet to appear) and 2013 will see the release of Manson Girls, telling the story through the eyes of Brenda, Squeaky and Sadie. One thing is certain though – as long as the Manson murders continue to fascinate the public, filmmakers will turn to it for direct and indirect inspiration.

Thora Birch in Manson Girls
Thora Birch in Manson Girls

Meanwhile, Brandon Slagle’s House of Manson 2014 movie ambitiously offers a chronicle of Manson’s childhood and development right up to the notorious massacre.

In 2017, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is in the planning stages. It will apparently be set in Los Angeles in 1969 with the Manson family murders as part of an overall theme. And as Tarantino has dropped out of the Weinstein circle due to the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a bidding war for his Manson-themed movie is heating up. In November 2017, it emerged that even Tom Cruise may be joining the project.

Deadline has reported that Tom Cruise has joined a list of potential cast members for Tarantino’s movie – including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. The latter apparently would portray Sharon Tate, the actress brutally murdered by Manson Family members.

David Flint, HORRORPEDIA

 

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