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The Manson Family
2004 - R - 95 Mins.
Director: Jim Van Bebber
Producer: Carl Daft, David Gregory, Mike King
Written By: Jim Van Bebber
Starring: Marcelo Games, Marc Pitman, Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse, Amy Yates
Review by: Jake Cremins
Official Site:
The story of Charles Manson and his notorious "Family" is, I guess, one that's here to stay. Viewed from a distance it's pretty fascinating stuff: it has brutal murders, involves the wealthy and famous, and ithinges upon Manson's conviction that the Beatles were smuggling secret messages to him through "The White Album." There's Manson himself, who upon his arrest paused for maybe one deep breath and then continued spouting his insane theories and motives at anybody who would record them. There's even the timing, which was just right to provide a sour conclusion to the decade of the Love Generation. The possibilities for sober essays and books on the social implications of this stuff are endless, and so are the essays and books.

What is astonishing about Jim Van Bebber's film, 'The Manson Family,' is the way it completely sucks all of the mystique and fascination out of this story. I mean this as a compliment. This is one of the most disturbing, off-puttingly violent movies I've seen all year, but it's also one of the most sternly moral: it absolutely refuses to depict its story as anything but the horrible and repellent thing it is.

The film fairly well plunges us into the experience of the Family's days at the Spahn Ranch, where every thought and action seems to have been fueled by an almost inconceivable amount of drugs. We see the Family members (mostly disillusioned kids) abandon themselves to reckless hedonism, participating in events I'm probably not allowed to describe here. In between they support themselves by stealing, gathering discarded food from Dumpsters and demanding money from anybody who comes into contact with them for more than five minutes. Manson appears occasionally, directing the proceedings with a complete lack of purpose or sanity; when you've dropped out to this degree, we gather, anyone who says anything in an authoritative way becomes an authority.

The cumulative effect of these scenes is something else. The film does everything it possibly can to disorient us, jumping from time to time and event to event, filming scenes in contradictory, disconnected styles, scratching up the print, loading the soundtrack with clips of music and speech, and commenting on the action in videotaped interviews from the present. The events displayed in this way range from the merely depraved to the truly sickening, and finally are almost unwatchable; physically, there's no way to remain unaffected. Any idle curiosity we had about what it would be like to see these infamous murders is quickly exhausted, and we soon feel ashamed that we ever had any.

As this goes on, we also begin to realize that the film is building an alternate theory about what inspired these murders. This theory is an intensely depressing one, in which the motives behind these killings were so banal, petty and stupid that they can't help but sound like the truth. (Manson's own predictions of global race wars and the like are barely mentioned, and then only so they can be dismissed.) Hearing such appallingly pointless reasons for doing these things, and then seeing them done in such detail, we realize that we've lost all chances to find anything mysterious or intriguing about the story of the Manson Family. There's nothing here but dumb, unblinking evil. Evil isn't doing things like this for reasons no one can understand; evil is doing them for no real reason at all.

The production of this film was about as independent as independent could be, done in fits and starts over the course of several years, on a budget that would send most filmmakers screaming into the night. It is occasionally, and perhaps inevitably, clumsy and physically awkward. The movie also suffers from a wraparound story that provides a beginning and an ending but not much else, and hammers home its point--that Violence Is Still With Us Today--a little too strongly. What the movie does not suffer from is a lack of ambition; even its unsuccessful moments are caused by the filmmakers caring too much, rather than too little.

Let me tell you about another movie I saw recently about Ted Bundy (titled, cunningly, 'Ted Bundy'). It was reprehensible junk didn't take itself seriously for a minute. Its idea of a really neat idea was to include a musical montage with Bundy raping and murdering girls as a map of the United States was superimposed onto the screen, with little spots of blood marking off the sites of his crimes. The scene resembled nothing so much as that jolly song with the roadmaps from 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.' It was like some kind of sick joke; this movie seemed completely unable to process the fact that these were real acts of violence really committed against real people.

'The Manson Family' could not be more different. It knows that the events it shows are horrible, ugly and wrong, and wants us to know it too. Van Bebber has made a film that's sometimes almost too sickening to watch, and in doing so he's taken the high road. This movie could have just capitalized off a famous murder case and made a quick buck, but instead it's been made with urgency and ideas. You may not be able to sit through it, but it deserves respect.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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