House of Manson and other tales

How many have seen any of the attempted Manson Family films? If so, which ones did you feel hit the mark the best and which ones didn’t work at all?

(Light spoilers for House of Manson.)

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve seen quite a few myself and just finished one titled House of Manson. How does this one stack against the others? Well, it manages to be the worst film to tackle the subject that I’ve seen so far. Just terribly done. The film looks cheap. The writing is terrible. The portrayal of Charles Manson himself lacks depth and charisma, which you desperately need for someone like that. He wasn’t just some hippie, or just some guy, which is how this performance comes off as. The only instance where we see any moment of shine is a bit where he records a song, but this is so quick and leads nowhere. The writing lacks connectivity, feeling aimless much of the way, and when the big moments finally come, where Tex starts going crazy on a drug dealer, it is so laughably acted, that it can’t possibly be taken seriously. And the other instances of murder and mayhem are so poorly plotted, that any impact these instances should have, are sadly missing.

The film I think got the brutality right was The Manson Family (2002), written and directed by Jim Van Bebber, an independent film with some weird vibes in it… but through that, it showcases the feel of the family, their crazy drugged out rituals, and the savagery of the murders themselves. It plays off almost like a documentary, with interviews of the family members after the fact inter-cut with their lives on the ranch with Manson. The acting fluctuates, but the resulting film feels raw and realistic, for the most part.

The other side of the coin, the 1976 TV movie, Helter Skelter, based on the book of the same name, focuses more on the trial as its structure, with the lawyer that prosecutes the family being the central character tying it all together. While it lacks the brutality, it more than makes up for this with solid performances, especially by Steve Railsback, who plays Manson, and also Nancy Wolfe, playing Sadie Mae Glutz, who is damn right chilling at times.

Through these two films, you get a window into that world, a truth, and that is most important for dealing with subject matter like this. House of Manson feels like any old movie about some hippies. It structures the film around Manson, attempting to go back to his childhood, namely to this one moment where his uncle (I think) calls him a rebel. And that moment is referenced over and over again, as some kind of central motivation for him. Why is he doing this? ‘Cause he’s a rebel.’ It comes off as silly and undercuts the character of Manson. This notion tries to make him come off like Easy Rider or Rebel Without a Cause or something, almost like he’s some victimized hero. In that respect, the film is very much an insult in addition to being bad.

How could you so thoroughly miss the boat on this when there is not one, but two films that manage to get there? And a 2nd adaptation of the book Helter Skelter as well, that, while not as effective, still manages to get Manson closer to the mark in a fine performance by Jeremy Davies. With the many clips of Manson readily available on the internet, it takes all of a few minutes to see just how horribly miscast Manson is in House of Manson.

At this point, I don’t really think there is any story left to tell. Going back further to Manson’s childhood might have been interesting had it not been an excuse to bring up a very silly reference to carry throughout. So the film wastes what new aspect it opted to bring to the film, which could have been interesting if explored fully and in better writing hands. As it is, if you have never seen a Charles Manson film before, stick with Helter Skelter (preferably the 1976 version, but the newer version isn’t bad) or The Manson Family. Leave this one in the dust.

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