The Manson Family(Dark Sky Films, 4.26.2005)
Hippies lead to drugs that lead to blood orgies that lead to... grizzly murder! More often than not, the iconic ringleader that is Charlie Manson gets all the attention, for better or worse. What about those other psychopaths that actually committed the murders? Ten years in the making (no joke), The Manson Family focuses less on the man himself than on those who commit the most notorious murders. Unfortunately, the film doesn't shed light on much and tends to focus most on the more obvious and sensational aspects: sex, drugs, and graphic violence. Those three things are naturally wonderful, but a good story and some half decent acting certainly would've helped.
Half of the film deals with Manson and co. basically tripping balls on the ranch, and then subsequently having a lot of muddy sex -- complete with non-stop full frontals (apparently, the director even got naked to make the cast feel more comfortable). Another quarter of the film takes us into the Tate house, where we have the (dis)pleasure of watching the occupants get brutally murdered one by one. Then it's off to the Labianca's for some even nastier staged murder.
I do have compassion for filmmakers who don't always want to gloss over the grimness of life's horrendous circumstances. In good taste, the only thing they don't show us is Sharon Tate having her impregnated stomach cut open (thank God). Still, the rest of the film just isn't able to justify this intense level of violence. The entire project seems to identify with these psychopaths by centering the film around them in a slightly sympathetic approach, we never really know what's going on in their head, just that they like to fuck and party a lot, and I guess kill people too. Still, there are definitely one or two brief moments of purely transfixing audacity.
As for that other 25% of the film, we cut to 1996, where a news reporter is crafting a story on Manson that doesn't necessarily look at him in the best light. So, throughout the film we get these glimpses of contemporary Manson devotees (or maybe just nihilistic psychos that like anything/anyone that is counterculture). They smoke crack, shoot up, wear giant dildos (on their faces) painted like the American flag, and torture/murder people in their spare time.
While the film certainly has its faults, the DVD is pretty superb, almost to the point of making this a solid recommendation. Disc one gives us the feature (in 1:33.1, with 5.1 surround), along with a still gallery and a batch of theatrical trailers. The real meat and potatoes can be found on the second disc, which comes with two documentaries -- each running an hour and fifteen minutes -- and a ten minute collection of Manson interview clips taken from the 1989 documentary film Charles Manson Superstar. Overall, the extras on these 2 discs make a 2 star film into a 3 star DVD.
The first documentary literally covers every aspect on the making of the film. We hear from everyone in the cast and crew, except for the actor who played Charlie (who several years ago gave up on the whole project and moved away). The documentary is informative, if a bit overly long and self gratifying. The most interesting factoid from this doc is definitely when the actors talk about actually taking drugs and even having some off-screen sex. They claim that they were constantly smoking pot, drinking booze, doing some hard drugs, and even having intercourse with one another. Now that's method acting!
The second doc takes us to the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal where a work-in-progress cut of The Manson Family played. We follow the film and its director, as well as plenty of other b-horror flicks and their creators. It's actually quite a discouraging doc, as many of the films flop and the filmmakers do the self pity thing. One alleged filmmaker in particular is enormously depressing to watch.
Lastly, the interview with Charles Manson is simultaneously amusing, hilarious, frightening...and completely incoherent. In other words, definitely a big plus. I was actually hoping for more Manson lunacy. -- Neil Karassik