I’ve been wanting to see Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family (2004) ever since I saw a trailer for the DVD at the start of either Frontiere(s) or Inside (I forget which). I quickly added it to my Netflix que, but it sat there buried by numerous other things I intended to watch. And even after it became available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature, I still held off. The multitude of bad reviews the film received had gotten to me and made me apprehensive.
I finally decided to give it a chance last night and couldn’t be happier with it. It was exactly what I was hoping it was from the promise of it’s trailer! But I also could understand why it got the volume of bad user reviews that it did.
The film is done in a Mockumentary style using archival footage of interviews of the followers intermixed with re-enactments of the events. And then for good measure some (intentional) convoluted present day plot lines thrown into the mix. It’s actually quite beautifully put together and not only captures the nostalgia of the time so exquisitely, but presents the story like you’re partaking in a sun drenched acid trip that is always teetering on the verge of going sour.
The film was done as a clear homage to the shorts of Richard Kern in style and substance. A point further hammered home by not only the inclusion of clips from Kern’s You Killed Me First within the film, but casting girls with striking resemblances to Lung leg. But it’s more than just Kern, The Manson Family has the fingerprints of Araki’s Doom Generation, Natural Born Killers, and even Jodorowsky Holy Mountain all-over it. All of which are favorites of mine. The over the top bad acting, extreme gore, graphic sex & surrealism were all here and working perfectly together.
That said, I can see why now it got such low grades. At the risk of sounding totally pretentious this is exactly the sort of film whose meaning is lost when viewed out of context and without knowledge of what it’s referencing. Without ever seeing any of Kern’s shorts or even Doom Generation you’d never know why the acting is the way it is, or why the editing is so choppy, and the picture so overblown at times. Unlike the typical serial killer thriller like say Zodiac, where you’re presented with “the story”. The Manson Family trys to evoke a reaction to the experience & absurdity of the events more so than tell their tale.
I know this isn’t a film for everyone, but there is a world of people out there who eat stuff like this up with a spoon. Hopefully I can direct some of them towrads this recent & overlooked gem of shock cinema.- My Pal the Crook