In 1967 Charles Manson was released from prison, and within two years he would gain international and cultural fame as the mastermind behind the vicious Tate-LaBianca murders, in which actress Sharon Tate and her guests were tormented and murdered by his Family members, and the LaBianca couple, who were similarly dispatched a day later.
The best-known book on the slaughters remains Helter Skelter, a detailed murder and trial chronicle written by Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. A massive tome, the best-seller covered the lawyer's career-making case that exposed the loser sediment of the hippie movement Hollywood icons courted for drugs and sex.
That association with mentally and morally stunted wastrels is what writer/director/co-star John Aes-Nihil believes brought Charles Manson and his co-dependents into the lives of a famous Hollywood household - headed by director Roman Polanski, and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate - and the hillside home of the average LaBianca family. Polanski tried to reinstate the sense of human tragedy and dignity in his 1984 autobiography, Roman by Polanski, to combat the lurid theories, rumors, and gossip propagated by contemporary tabloids, crime fans, and conspiracy theorists, but the life and crimes of Charlie and his Manson Family will always evoke fascination and ghoulish curiosity among crime fans, and generations that continue to regard serial killers and mass murders as modish pop cultural icons.
Manson has benefited from our fascination with depraved minds because of his pivotal position in media history: during the 1960s, TV had gone colour; gory news clips from the Viet Nam War were gradually seeping into dinnertime newscasts; Hollywood studios scrambled to attract the youth market by courting and exploiting more violent and sexually explicit stories already doing business at the local drive-ins; and the assassinations and protests of top political and religious figures arguably desensitized a media-reared populace to more detailed horrors. But chief among all is Manson's second life in books, pictorials, TV movies, exploitation films, and appearances on TV talk shows, particularly during the 1980s.
John Aes-Nihil's obsession with Manson is never explained in his commentary track for the feature-length film; like the crudely constructed home movies, Aes-Nihil's position as a filmmaker simply exists as a related artifact to the famous crimes, and the DVD never provides any background to the reasons for his own need to explore the events in such detail over a 5-year period. Filmed between 1974-79, Aes-Nihil pretty much grabbed anyone available to fill the roles of the key participants - sometimes invoking dual transvestitism or racial anachronisms out of need, or a bizarre sense of humour - but then the film isn't supposed to be a straightforward docu-drama.
Part amateurish recreation, Manson Family Movies quickly develops its own mystique and power because of three key elements: our knowledge of the pivotal slaughterfests means a mounting dread builds towards the film's conclusion; the slavish affection the director maintained to filming at actual locales (when possible); and his own infusion of apocryphal details. Many of the edifices no longer exist, and the desert locations where the Family lived and later fled are places even devout fans would find too extreme for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.
Aes-Nihil's film is therefore a queasy cultural artifact, made in the wake of the Manson Family trials and cash-in books and movies, and in its uncut version on DVD, the film's been boosted by a soundtrack packed with songs performed by Manson and his Family - screechy, quasi-folk tunes dealing with burning fires, home happiness, and a garbage dump - plus original material by the director's own band.
Even those familiar with the main crime facts will find the film more engaging with the director's steady commentary track; there's far too much minutia in the film to make a coherent narrative, and the very nature of home movies is of a fractured, clumsy, and sometimes vulgar time capsule kept in a bottom cupboard, force-fed to visiting family members. Aes-Nihil points out the true events and cheeky odes to rumors and conspiracies, and like the separately indexed outtake montage (itself, just as engaging with commentary), the footage includes gore (partly cheap, later grotesquely treading into Herschel Gordon Lewis terrain), and flashes of hardcore porn (with the explicit moments gathered in the outtakes).
The DVD also contains two complimentary extras: colour crime scene and black & white morgue shots of the cadavers (which are definitely not for the squeamish); and a 1994 British TV interview with Charles Manson in prison. The photos are an addendum to the feature film's own ghoulish nature, and a kind of bludgeoning reality check. The Manson interview actually follows a lengthy discussion (if that term can be so loosely used) on rock and roll music. Bill Scanlan Murphy's queries are barely audible in the taped piece, but Manson's replies reveal a traumatized mind that's had to adapt since his own messed up youth just to stay marginally functional; he's been labeled an egocentric manipulator by behavioral scientists, and while he's aware of his media persona as 'Crazy Old Charlie', the mouthfuls of bizarre hip talk and obtuse references make it clear Manson's been reduced over time to a caged thing we poke with the microphone every few years, just to see what's left of a mangled human soul.
Packed with plenty of extras, Cult Epic's Manson Family Movies DVD showcases a crude, trippy work of surreal ephemera, and one that compellingly assembles the myths, facts, and archival elements of a sordid milestone in crime history.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan