3 May 2005 | bsimko
I'll be helpful if I can....
I'm giving the film a 10/10 because of how I feel about it, but ignore that part of this review. What I'd like to do is help you, the potential viewer of The Manson Family, figure out whether you'd love this movie or hate it. It is a polarizing film, as is obvious from the reviews - no genuinely bad films get such an extreme reaction, positive or negative. The worst movies on earth are the ones where you just feel like your time was wasted. At worst, this film will make you feel like your time was violated - remember that the people who give it one star were motivated to find this web page and leave their comments. Go look up any god-awful Fred Olen Ray movie and see what people say: they give 2 or 3 star reviews. I suggest that the only one-star reviews on this entire site are motivated by being offended, not by the movie being "bad" in any objective sense.
Okay, that said, I think this is a well-made film, which I am prepared to support with evidence. The people who said that this is poorly shot ("the camera doesn't move") are clearly out of their minds. Not only does the camera move (and why would it matter if it didn't?), but the filmic technique is a dead-on mimic of the film techniques of the period it is depicting (late 1960s). This is a low budget, 16mm film, so it doesn't have any kind of Hollywood gloss - it is semi-documentary in it's approach. However, I found it to be stylish and evocative of Vietnam documentary footage, Woodstock (the film), and classic drive-in exploitation movies of the period. Again, this is something you'll probably either love or hate, but it is a calculated decision to look "unprofessional" by modern Hollywood standards.
As far as the content of the film, I think it is mistakenly regarded by some as a "message" film, and by others as an "exploitation" film. I think it is neither, or maybe more accurately, both - this is a "depiction" film, intent on depicting the Manson Family as realistically as possible. Why do that? Because Manson and his "Family" is one of the most sociologically interesting phenomena of the 20th century, in many ways comparable to Hitler and the Nazis. Jim VanBebber made a conscious (even a little heavy-handed, lending a little credence to the idea that this is a "message" film) decision to focus on the "family," the actual killers (Manson himself was convicted of inciting the crimes, not participating). Having read a lot of Manson literature including the Vincent Bugliosi book Helter Skelter, I think that this is the most accurate way I've seen the story told, particularly with the "Rashomon"-esque narration of the participants, where they whitewash their own involvement in the crimes, something that frustrated District Attourney Bugliosi to no end.
Now, how will you be able to tell whether this movie is for you, with all the "VanBebber is a genius" or "this is the worst movie ever made" crap out there? Here's the checklist:
1: Do you like low-budget 16mm horror films? It looks low-budget like Evil Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original), a look which I find to be raw and immediate, but that's an opinion. The much-debated quality of the acting is exactly in keeping with this style. If, for example, you thought the acting in the Texas Chainsaw was rough and real, you'll probably like this, too.
2: Can you cope with graphic sex, drug use, and violence? The sex is near-X-rated and the violence, though they use 70's-style Karo syrup blood, is intense, grotesque, and on-screen. And really happened to real people, which freaks me out.
3: Do you find the twisted social mores of the Manson family to be interesting? This is not a film about a charismatic leader - it's a film about lost sheep. This type of senseless killing is only committed by people who have lost their empathy, an effect that is all too easy to achieve - it takes a lot less than what Manson did to subvert a person's ethics (see the psychological research of Milgram, Zimbardo, et al).
I thought the film did an excellent job of making an intellectual point at a (mostly) visceral level. The point is that human ethics are incredibly flexible and that hedonism is ultimately selfish, even when the love is "free." My final statement: A person with a (very?) strong stomach who is willing to engage his or her intellect in something that doesn't seem quite worth it on the surface will probably enjoy this movie, and be surprised at how deep the well runs. A crazy gore fan will probably like this movie. Fans of underground and experimental film (esp. Richard Kern fans) will love this movie. Mainstream Hollywood fans will not; non-genre fans will not.