There was a palpable sense of dread in the theater prior to a showing of The Manson Family; you could have heard a pin drop. The big nightmare of August 1969, which laid countercultural innocence to rest forever, still has a formidable cringe-factor.
In underground film circles, Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family has attained a reputation of mythological proportions over the last decade or so. Principal shooting began in Dayton, Ohio, circa 1988. Those familiar with Van Bebber’s struggle to complete and release the film will inevitably experience it as an event. But for the uninitiated, The Manson Family’s theatrical release deserves more than just a footnote in film history. Viewed simply in terms of personal aesthetic vision, the film is by turns amateurish, sexy, heartbreaking and unrepentantly excessive.
This is a docudrama: Van Bebber tells the gory tale through dramatic, explicit re-creations. He portrays the squalid feel of Southern California drug-life in the late ’60s with the look of an extreme LSD trip. Van Bebber uses fictitious interview snippets effectively; however, an ambitious wraparound narrative concerning a gang of present-day Mansonites nearly drowns the film.
Switching back and forth from flamboyance to banality, Van Bebber does succeed in peeling further back a few of the case’s deepest layers. It’s obvious from the start that not all of the actors are professionally trained, but there’s an unexpected level of conviction evident in several of them. If there’s any fun to be had watching this film, it’s in studying the cast. A memorable pathos is manifested within these performances, some of which are notable on the sheer basis of the actors’ utter lack of sexual inhibitions. Van Bebber’s obsession with the primal physicality of not only the murders, but also the cult’s short-lived Death Valley Dionysia, is what separates The Manson Family from any other film on the subject to date. By refusing to downplay the hideous frenzy of these crimes in his unblinking re-creations, he pushes the limits. The director makes only one concession to his audience: The Sharon Tate attack happens off-screen.
The Manson Family doesn’t romanticize the subject, nor is it a film meant to be enjoyed in any traditional sense. The most tolerant viewer will come away with senses pummeled and a head full of dark ideas to sort out. If a heavy mindfuck appeals to you, enduring The Manson Family should be a priority this week. If not, you’d probably find a root canal comparatively relaxing.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Gene Gregorits writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].