“The Manson Family” (2003)


Studio: Mercury Films
Starring: Leslie Orr, Maureen Allisse, Marc Pitman, Marcelo Games, Jim Van Bebber, Amy Yates
Directed by: Jim Van Bebber
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 93 min.

Synopsis: The story of The Manson Family and how they came to be and what led to their horrific crimes.


Chris Woods

Throughout the years there have been many films made about Charles Manson. Some of the films that have been made are actually based on Manson and the murders and others are just inspired or loosely based on the crimes. The most famous and well told film about Manson is the 1976 television mini-series, Helter Skelter, but Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family is right up there with it. The Manson Family is a great film that tells a haunting tale of one of the most horrific crimes in history. Van Bebber actually focuses more on the family rather than Charlie, which is an interesting take that works good for the film.

The film starts off in 1996 with a news reporter doing a story on the Manson family. He even says to his producer that every story he hears about the Tate-LaBianca murders they focus more on Manson instead of the kids that committed the crimes. The reporter goes through current and past interviews of the family like Text Watson (Marc Pitman), Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Maureen Allisse), Patty Krenwinkel (Leslie Orr), Leslie Van Houten (Amy Yates), Bobby Beausoleil (Jim Van Bebber), and many others. As the members of the Manson family tell their story, it flashes back to the late 1960’s when Tex joins the family.

Meanwhile, there is a group of goth kids high on heroin who worship Manson watching the special on him on TV and plotting something. The film cuts back and forth between these goth kids, the reporter, interviews, and scenes with Charlie and his family in the 60’s. The film is done mostly in a documentary style at times, but the scenes from the 60’s are done like a narrative film. The film continues to tell the story of the Manson family up until the Tate and LaBianca murders.

This film came out in 2003 and since its release I have been waiting to see this film. I recently got it on DVD, which included a making of documentary. This documentary on the film told me a lot about the production and filled in some of the holes. When I saw the film I noticed it looked really gritty like a 60’s or 70’s film and I am not talking the fake gritty look that some films have, this was the real deal. Something unusual for the digital age of the 2000’s, but I learned that the film was not made in the 2000’s, the majority of the film was made in 1988 with the rest of it being filmed from 1989 through 1996. So, that is why it had that great gritty look, because it was shot on 16mm and was not a film made in the 2000’s, it was just released then.

According to the documentary, Van Bebber shot fifty percent of the movie in ’88, but ran out of money. Between then and ’96 whenever Van Bebber would get money he would find the cast and shoot more scenes. The film was originally titled Charlie’s Family, but was later changed when it was released. Van Bebber added the scenes with the goth kids later in the 90’s because he wanted to show that there was still evil out there and it did not go away after the end of the 60’s when the family was caught. He also wanted to show how in later years Manson became a product and was plastered all over t-shirts and posters and how kids would wear shirts with his face on it like they would a rock star.

After production was completed on the film, Van Bebber still needed money for processing the film, editing, and music. Many times he was promised funding or jobs that would pay for the film, but most of the time it would fall through. The movie finally got funding in the early 2000’s and was finished and finally released to the public. The film did play at a few film festivals in the late 90’s in a rough cut form and won some awards in its unfinished state. Also during the many years of the off and on again production there was fear of people leaving, mainly the cast. Most of all the cast stayed, expect for the actor who played Charlie, Marcelo Games, who was a long time film buddy of Van Bebber who was cast as Manson because he had long hair and a beard. After ’88, Games wanted to move on to other things and did not want to be a part of movies anymore, but Van Bebber got enough footage of him as Manson and the film was mostly about the family and not Charlie.

There are plenty of interesting things about this film and things that they focus on that other films based on Manson do not. They touch on Manson doing recordings of his songs by producer Terry Melcher. They showcase many things with the family like acid trips, orgies, and other craziness the family would do. They also touch on the other crimes and murders The Manson Family were involved with like the shooting of Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe. Tex Watson had ripped off Crowe on a drug deal and Crowe promised to wipe them all out. Manson had a meeting with Crowe to work things out, but he ended up shooting Crowe. Crowe ended up surviving, but Manson believed that he killed him when he read in the paper about a body of a member of the Black Panthers found, but Crowe was not a member of that group and it was not his body. Now Manson believed that the Panthers were going after the family for revenge and they had to strike back somehow.

This led to the Gary Hinman murder, which is also covered in the film. Hinman was an acquaintance of the family and Manson thought he had some money. He sent Bobby Beausoleil and Susan Atkins to hold him hostage and get the money. They hold him up for two days, Charlie stops by and cuts his ear with a sword, and Bobby ends up stabbing him to death. Bobby and Susan leave a sign to make it look like The Black Panthers did it. Eventually Bobby is arrested for driving Hinman’s car and having the murder weapon on him. This leads to the family to commit the other murders to make it look like other killers were out there to prove that Bobby couldn’t have murdered Hunman and in hope to get him released from jail. Van Bebber covers all this where most films do not and you see other people and factors involved that give more insight to this crazy man and his family and the horrible acts that they do.

The scenes of the Tate-LaBianca murders in the film are very disturbing and graphic and hard to watch. The actors portray these coldhearted killers with no remorse and are very convincing. It is also hard to watch these scenes because this is a reenactment of something that happened in real life and is not just a fictional scene from a movie, which makes it much more disturbing. You are witnessing a portal of a real nightmare right in front of your very eyes. The murder scenes were actually the last scenes shot in the film. Some eight years after production began.

One good thing is Van Bebber does not glorify Manson or any of the family members. Often when Manson is talked about by some family members in the film who go against him and say that he is just a con-man and a coward and that he is no messiah. I did not really care for the goth kids from ’96 at first and thought they could have done without them, but I understand why Van Bebber wanted to use them and after watching it again I didn’t mind them as much. At least they were not in most of the film and only showed up in the beginning, middle, and end.

Some other interesting facts about the film are, that singer Phil Anselmo from Pantera and Down did some of the music and provided the voice of Satan. One of the very first scenes that were shot was a sex scene with actors, Marc Pitman and Leslie Orr, which took place outside in a field and they had to be totally nude in the scene. Van Bebber wanted them to feel more comfortable in the scene, so he got naked too when he filmed the shot. Van Bebber gave blood and plasma to raise money for the film. Van Bebber also took the yoke out of eggs and poured fake blood in them and would throw it at an actor when their character was shot by a gun in a scene. In an orgy scene that was filmed the cast got high for real and one of the actors preformed oral sex on a stripper that they used in the scene.

The Manson Family is a very well done film that takes a different look at the family and shows how they came to be. I am very glad that Jim Van Bebber was able to finish his film after fifteen years. Since then Van Bebber has not made a film. I hope one day he returns to directing. The DVD is a great buy with the making of documentary, another documentary that features Van Bebber and other filmmakers at a festival in Montréal in 1997, and an interview with Charles Manson. Check out the film if you haven’t all ready, it is highly recommended.