By Graham Rae | October 28, 2004

Well folks, you’ve read the script, heard the soundtrack, encountered the rumors about director Jim VanBebber. So the final question is, of course, is “The Manson Family”, a legendary 16mm film which took 15 years to complete from start to finish…actually any good?


“The Manson Family” (previous title: “Charlie’s Family”), started when the director was a mere 24 years old (which makes it all the more incredible an accomplishment), is a grim, gritty, nihilistic, sexy, gory, disturbing, beautiful, sleazy, truthful take on the notorious young members of cult leader Charles Manson’s self-styled ‘Family’. Recounting their deeds here – the Tate-LaBianca murders, the hardcore acid abuse, the orgies at Spahn Ranch, etc – seems utterly redundant as they have become such a familiar part of the American cultural psyche, something which VanBebber addresses directly in the film, which he conceived as a statement about endless media fascination with the Family in the decades since their incarceration.

The film consists of several interwoven strands – footage of the family at the time leading up and including the murders, contemporary prison interviews with the incarcerated Family members (interestingly contrasting their sometimes skewed, rose-color-tinted versions of past events with the cold hard reality of events like gang rape), and contemporary, superb, Cinema of Transgression-inspired scenes of a gang of mad, nihilistic Manson followers. These strands are held together by a trashy TV journalist making a show about named Crime Scene about the Family, which is a neat framing device allowing for an angry confrontation coda between the Manson teens and the tabloid hack.

And what of the footage in between? Well, it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. The murders are shown in unflinching, super-graphic detail (with occasionally ropey FX by the director, it has to be said, but it was all done with no money so that’s forgivable), except for the murder of Sharon Tate, which VanBebber shies away from out of respect to Roman Polanski. Nevertheless, the Tate house scene still managed to garner several walkouts during this year’s CUFF, and it’s hardly surprising.

The sex scenes are very graphic and realistic (“30 people in a field on acid f*****g like dogs” as VanBebber once put it to me) and an orgy scene where the Family cut a dog’s throat and f**k covered in its blood is as near to a representation of a Heironymous Bosch painting as you’re likely to see in cinema, replete with acid-scarred tripped-out brain-damaged visuals. THIS is the reason we come to underground cinema, to see beautiful damaged hardcore f*****g s**t the mainstream will not show, and VanBebber does not disappoint.

The actual performances during the film range from excellent to somewhat amateurish, but this amateurism is easily absorbed by the sheer power of the imagery on display. The depth of the director’s vision and his extremely angry execution of selfsame is both shocking and awe-inspiring. Cinematographer Mike King’s imagework is exemplary, experimental and extremely focused at the same time, making brilliant use of several different film stocks (replete with faux scratches to replicate decades-old footage) and video to paint a visually inspiring film that far surpasses its budgetary limitations.

This truly is one great-looking film whose like will never come our way again. I would recommend it without reservation, if you think you can take it. But one thing’s for sure: you will never, ever forget it after viewing it, so don’t be surprised if you find a traveling cavalcade of naked freaky bloodsmeared drugfucked homicidal lost kids led by a bearded maniacally laughing man creepy crawling through your bad dreams in some post-screening unguarded sweatsoaked predawn moment…

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