The punk-hipster appeal of filmmaker Jim Van Bebber is based on half a dozen lurid, no-budget gorefests like My Sweet Satan, in which a suicidal teenager gets strung out on dope and starts worshipping the devil, and Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin, whose maniacal protagonist insists on scraping his dinner off the local pavement. Understandably, midnight-movie cultists seem enthralled as much by Van Bebber's occasional tongue-in-cheek humor as by his brazen cheesiness. But The Manson Family, the Ohio-born director's latest low-rent foray into sex, drugs and ultraviolence, hasn't got a laugh in it -- unless some twisted wackos out there find the dismemberment of Sharon Tate amusing.
Why Van Bebber would choose to revisit the Charlie Manson mess is anyone's guess: The harrowing, beautifully acted TV movie Helter Skelter retired the subject, cinematically speaking, way back in 1976. In any event, the new effort is nothing more than a blood-drenched bit of exploitation, made for about 200 bucks, which purports to show us Manson's magnetism, the Tate-LaBianca murders and, by implication, the demise of '60s youth culture, all from the point of the view of the deluded killers themselves. True to form, Van Bebber reduces the whole thing to trash horror and soft-core porn. Incoherent trash horror and soft-core porn. Vincent Bugliosi might do well to bring charges for crimes against the art cinematic.
Want to know more? A symbolist of no small gift, Van Bebber opens the movie with the vision of a breeze-rippled American flag, then douses it with movie blood; next, a field of pretty flowers gets soaked bright red. This is bad news, zeitgeist-wise, for the Love-and-Peace era. But before everything goes to hell, we get a tour of the Ranch in the good old days, when "family" members were dropping acid every morning, searching for God and happily copulating in the sun-kissed meadows -- mass fornication the movie depicts in fleshy detail. "That's what Charlie said the whole universe was about," one blissed-out follower informs us. "One big fuck." Good old Charlie. Never short on philosophical insight.
The Manson Family
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This Manson, portrayed by someone named Marcelo Games, wanders around the property like a deranged midget, shouting at people and sometimes laughing hysterically. The guy may have thought he was Jesus, but Games plays him as one of the Three Stooges, probably without intending to. By the way, that's Van Bebber himself, cavorting around in the role of Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil. As for the malleable, drifty Manson girls (Maureen Allisse, Michelle Briggs, Amy Yates, etc.), it's hard to figure out who's supposed to be who, so muddled are the characters and so chaotic the editing. Suffice it to say that one zombie speaks for all when she says of the little despot: "He is living perfection."
In the name of perspective -- or something -- Van Bebber interweaves Family with a second, bewildering narrative track. This is allegedly the view from 1996, in which a middle-aged TV producer (Carl Day) seeks to reconstruct the Manson story from a VHS tape someone has sent him. There are also bogus, talking-head "interviews" with ex-Manson-family members, explaining (none too clearly) what happened when and to whom. To complicate matters even more, we run afoul of a band of latter-day Mansonoids, amply pierced, heavily armed and wild-eyed, who appear to be after the TV producer. Not a bad idea. His sole contribution to historical analysis is this zinger, delivered in Moses-worthy tones: "The [murder] trial was a milestone in the death of the hippie movement." Thanks, pal. We'd never have known.
Otherwise, Van Bebber's most notable skill is to confuse. No wonder Family ran out of funding almost seven years ago; for reasons only they know, new investors resuscitated it in 2003.
By the time our wayward, knife-wielding kids get into their burglaries, which they called "creepy-crawlys," into their massacres and bloody messages scrawled on dining-room walls, this mess of a movie has lost all sense of purpose and direction, except for the obvious pleasure its perpetrator takes in slashing throats and stabbing chests. Give Van Bebber credit, though, for a kind of dim, low-wattage honesty. He doesn't even pretend to look for deeper meaning in this frantic, clumsy retelling of the Manson tragedy. For him, letting blood and getting stoned and indulging the prurient interest are their own rewards. In the world of trash-horror movies, he, too, is living perfection.