Way back in 1988, young Ohio-based director Jim Van Bebber began shooting a film about Charles Manson and his gang of hippie murderers; entitled Charlie’s Family, a rough cut was finally completed in the mid-nineties. But the money wasn’t there to complete all the expensive post-production work – 35mm blow-up, sound mix, title sequences etc – so for nearly a decade the film could only be seen on bootleg video and at film festivals, where Van Bebber would showcase his work-in-progress print. Finally, in 2003 British producers Blue Underground came forward with the necessary completion funds.
Blue Underground’s cash injection may have allowed the film (now retitled The Manson Family) to be shown theatrically, but thankfully has not smoothed over its savage edges. Van Bebber presents his picture as a kaleidoscopic semi-documentary, framing it in 1996 as a TV producer reviews the interview footage for an upcoming Manson TV special. The story of Manson’s rise from hippie songwriter to rage-fuelled gang leader is narrated by the incarcerated, middle-aged family members, while Van Bebber reconstructs the actual events from the late-sixties, occasionally cutting to the TV producer and a Manson-fixated gang who are out to get him.
All of which leads to a fractured, disorientating film, but one that somehow suits its messy structure. The same actors play the gang members as kids, indoctrinated by Manson’s contradicting messages of free love and violent rebellion, and as their older selves in prison. They don’t make particularly convincing 50-year-olds – Van Bebber simply gives his cast fake moustaches, glasses and grey wigs – but although the acting is generally amateurish, there are occasional moments of convincing drama. Marc Pitman, playing Manson’s right hand man Tex, has an intense charisma, while Van Bebber himself is impressive as Bobby, the first family member to commit murder. Unfortunately Marcelo Games’ limp performance as Manson provides little clue as to why the man would inspire such devotion – he just seems like a wild-eyed, gurning clown who was pissed off because he couldn’t get a record deal.
But if Van Bebber comes up short on insight, he nevertheless creates a compulsive portrait of the events that led to two bloody nights of murder in August 1969. Given the budget, the editing and photography are outstanding, vividly capturing the hazy sex-and-drug fuelled lifestyle that Charlie and his largely female disciples indulged in on their Californian ranch. Like Ruggero Deodato in Cannibal Holocaust, Van Bebber manipulates the colour of his film stock and adds scratches to give the photography a realistically worn look, and the soundtrack is a dizzying, overlapping jumble of voices, music (including some of Manson’s own) and dissonant noise. The murders themselves are horrifically realised. Van Bebber refrains from showing the butchering of eight-month pregnant Sharon Tate, but the other six killings – committed by Tex and three of Charlie’s girls – are shown in prolonged, unflinching detail.
What really don’t work are the scenes set in the modern day. We see the Manson-obsessed gang performing bizarre S&M rituals while listening to a tape of the Reverend Jim Jones inciting his own cult to mass suicide, and in the final scene they break into the TV studio to kill the producer. Perhaps Van Bebber wanted to show that Manson continues to influence kids today, or that the media plays its part in keeping Charlie's legend alive, and it is possible that the documentary framing device is another homage to Cannibal Holocaust. But these pointless, clumsy scenes add nothing to the film; thankfully they don’t detract too much from the power of the main story. The Manson Family may be a wild, flawed film, but Van Bebber deserves respect for remaining true to his uncompromising vision and delivering a genuinely unsettling piece of underground cinema.