THE MANSON FAMILY, like the infamous CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, is an insidiously violent film partly presented in a pseudo-documentary format. What distinguishes Van Bebber’s feature from Deodato’s is the use of real life events as its template and a firm refusal to tie itself in knots with facile message making.
The film, then, is a ferocious, densely textured work of art that will, nevertheless, provoke extreme responses - physical, moral, and intellectual - to challenge even the hardiest of viewers and remains one of the most controversial, misunderstood, and essential films of recent memory.
Utilizing a plurality of techniques and film stocks, the film reconstructs the early activities of ‘The Family’ and their descent into the Tate-LaBianca killings. Van Bebber juxtaposes this with a contemporary sub plot involving tabloid journalist Jack Wilson’s quest to film a documentary on the subject; and uses his subsequent murder at the hands of modern day Manson acolytes to comment on the harmful effects of media saturation on obsessive youth cults.
Despite being an eagerly awaited film among cult horror circles and garnering post-production support from the likes of Blue Underground’s Bill Lustig in the States, THE MANSON FAMILY has been badly received in the UK. Generally dismissed as poorly made, harmful, and exploitative, the film has been grossly misrepresented by critics.
When adult films detail horrendous acts of violence, many of the more reputable critics appear to shrink away and pass the work off as unacceptable - a cut off point from using their interpretative muscle. Films such as IRREVERSIBLE (2002) have thus split critics, and a Sight and Sound feature a couple of years ago was devoted to a “for “ and “against” critique of the film by two different writers.
Yet, even those who admire Gaspar Noe’s masterpiece seem to find Van Bebber’s labour of love unacceptable. The two films have a lot in common: they both use frightful images to comment on violence that force the viewer to question his/her own responses, and both utilize wholly cinematic means to do so.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of key elements that separate the two pictures. While IRREVERSIBLE has art house credentials due to its director’s earlier success, I STAND ALONE (1998), as well as the use of popular international stars, Van Bebber is an exploitation director infamous for the thrillingly violent gang warfare flick DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988) which he made after dropping out of film school. Noe’s reputation seems to make his work more palatable (for some) even though it is no less gruesome and no more intelligent.
IRREVERSIBLE’S genius lies in its structure. It tells a simple (but nasty) rape-revenge tale backwards so as to remove the vicarious thrill of violence to instead shock the viewer with unexpected scenes of carnage. Likewise, THE MANSON FAMILY legitimizes itself as a complex work of art in this same area.
The film’s narrative operates on a series of doublings and oppositions, operating on the motif of the mirror to evoke the shift from rural hippy life to mass carnage and to also present a future in which the Manson influence lives on. The early stages at the ranch involving “innocent” group sex, give way to blood drinking orgies, and Charlie transforms from a peace loving Jesus Christ figure to Satan himself, complete with hallucinatory horns.
To sustain this pattern, an incarcerated Tex (Mark Pittman) points out in an interview compiled for Jack Wilson’s documentary that Charlie’s credo to his followers progressed from “the death of the ego” - to negate the image of oneself and become an extension of Charlie’s will - into the more literal “violent physical death”, i.e. murder.
This commentary is accompanied by images of a sinister ritual featuring mirrors, through which eagle eyed viewers will see minute glimpses of the future killings. Several murders are doubled from the Tate-La Bianca slayings to the present day Manson influenced Goths, including multiple stabbings, face bashings (providing further parallels with IRREVERSIBLE), and so on to forge a strong link between past and present.
One cannot discuss MANSON FAMILY without delving into Van Bebber’s graphic depiction of the actual murders conducted by Tex, Sadie, and Katie. The final third of the film is pure mayhem, presenting its carnage by means of an extraordinary drug warped, subjective aesthetic involving rapid montage, strobe lighting, rippled patterns of shifting colours accompanied by a thumping soundtrack.
Van Bebber, then, chooses to portray the disorientated inner reality of the killers, and spares us little in the way of the broken, maimed bodies left in their wake. Most of the images are stunning, particularly the shot of Abigail Folger bleeding to death in her white night gown. The killing of heavily pregnant Sharon Tate is presented more sparingly, but is given an even more disturbing edge by means of the creative choice to obscure the puncturing of her torso (blocked partially by Tex’s back).
The outright ruthlessness in the depiction of these killings would seem to make the film hard to defend superficially. But it is a striking portrayal and the picture is too complex and nuanced for dismissal. As with DEADBEAT AT DAWN, Van Bebber never shies away from violence but he, nevertheless, is keen to show its consequences.
THE MANSON FAMILY features consequences that are both immediate and far-reaching. Tate, Folger, and their two companions, Voytek Frykowski and Jay Sebring, clearly suffer a great deal during the ordeal, and Folger takes an age to die onscreen. The documentary sub plot involving “Crime Scene With Jack Wilson” is intended as a critique of the media’s infatuation with violent crime, the effects of which stretch into the present day to affect the behaviour of confused youths.
Van Bebber’s film is hugely provocative in the sense that it not only treads the fine line between art and exploitation but also blurs it. The feature works as straight horror - it has some startling images - but probes deeper in its media assessment, with the director utilizing a brilliantly layered visual style (video interviews, scratchy “docu” footage, crime reconstruction, and surrealism) to both emphasise and transcend the format.
Just as the film utilizes a plurality of stylistic approaches, the film’s characters display a multiplicity of perspectives. Charlie is appropriately blank: he is whatever his various followers project onto him - Jesus, Satan, a lover, a guru, brainwasher, musician, etc. It is the Family, fittingly, whom the film focuses on. The film also includes intriguing conflicts of opinion among its subjects, as with the abusive treatment of farmhand Sherry Ann Cooper (aka Simi Valley Sherri) at the Spahn Ranch. Bobby (Van Bebber) tells Jack Wilson on video that “we balled her brains out and she loved it”, whereas Tex’s (Marc Pittman) comments to the same interviewer suggest that it was a gang rape that he had nothing to do with. Van Bebber’s own reconstruction sequence contradicts both of them - Tex lures her into a barn, drugs her, and rapes her with vicious glee. This is but one of many such examples, and allows the director to create inventive depictions of much discussed, imagined, remembered and replayed events.
THE MANSON FAMILY is an astonishing marriage of primal art and meta-cinema. Van Bebber plunges into the subject matter and concentrates it, to provide an intriguing view of historical events that are seldom addressed directly but rather veiled in modern (especially exploitation) cinema. This mesmerizing film took fourteen years to make, and was worth the wait.
Anchor Bay’s/High Fliers' DVD is presented in the original full screen ratio. The picture quality is wonderful - it looks exactly as it did in theatres - so you can throw away your worn out old bootlegs and stop reading your dog eared Creation Books screenplays now.
Directed by Jim Van Bebber
US / Colour / 94 mins
An Anchor Bay / High Fliers DVD Release, "Rental Only" Copy under review
Region 2 Pal / 1.33:1
THE MANSON FAMILY