The Manson Family (1988-2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I suppose I should explain the date(s) above.  Independent filmmaker James Van Bebber started to film his no-budget Manson film in 1988. The guy who played Manson lived on a ranch/farm, and his dad had some animals on that property. It was a suitable location to recreate the storied Spahn ranch, a location which had been used for many films and a place where Manson and his family had lived for some time. The director had a vague inkling that he could finish his film with his mostly volunteer cast in a few weekends of shooting at that ranch.

He was close. He finally finished the film 16 years later.

The finished movie basically consists of three parts:

(1) The events which took place from 1967-69

(2) A framing device about a documentary film producer who interviews the members of the Manson Family many years after the original events, as they reflect back on what happened through self-serving and often contradictory accounts. The producer himself offers the "straight" perspective on the events. (Laurence Merrick, the producer of a 1973 documentary called Manson, was actually murdered in 1977. This event, and speculation that Manson supporters might be involved, formed the basis for the otherwise fictional framing device.)

(3) A sub-plot about some latter day Goths who have taken Manson as their counter-cultural icon, and plot to murder the producer of the documentary.

Those first few weekends at the ranch did manage to complete a big chunk of the film, which is to say most of section 1 above - from the peaceful hippie days until the Gary Hinman murder.

The rest of it was harder to do. A lot harder. Money ran out, and the guy who played Manson actually left the production. The Goth sub-plot, with four new actors, was added in 1996. The family member interviews were shot catch-as-catch-can. In one sense, the long delays in filming provided a benefit that no-budget independent filmmakers rarely achieve - the actors' aging was completely believable, because the normal process of cheap make-up effects was replaced, or at least supplemented, by the natural aging process. The actors had aged about as much as the characters were supposed to.

Van Bebber took an unfinished version of his film to FanTasia Montreal in 1997, at which time he made a deal to get some completion money. That deal fell through, and he was back to scratching and saving again. Miraculously, he did eventually manage to complete the project, and the film swung small theatrical distribution deals in the U.K. and the U.S.A. The British reviews were weak, but the American reviews included a fair share of praise. Two highly respected reviewers had some positive reactions. Roger Ebert raised a few eyebrows by seeing the film and awarding it three stars, although he kind of held his nose while doing that. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly chimed in with some praise and a B-.

To me the effusive praises and pans of this movie boil down more to the nature of the observers than to the quality of the film itself. The film is what it is, and it is all out there in the open. On the debatable side, the film takes the stance that the Tate-Lobianca murders had nothing to do with Vincent Bugliosi's famous Helter-Skelter theory, but that they were simply meant to exonerate a family member for an earlier murder by showing that the killer was still at large. On the negative side, the acting troupe consists of amateurs, some of the effects and make-up are laughably bad, and the Goth subplot seems unnecessary, clumsy, and tacked-on. On the positive side, the film recreates the look of old newsreel footage, old home movies, and 1960's underground films, and the director does a good job of making the viewer feel present with the family at the actual events, down to all the nitty-gritty details of the sex, drugs, and violence. Although it is a low budget film with amateur participants, the sex and violence looks real, and the film gives off the feel of the films of that era, as well as the actual acid-warped experiences which inspired many of those films.

In essence, it was neither the negative elements nor the debatable ones that inspired the most negative reviews. It was, ironically enough, the greatest strength of the movie that caused the harshest criticism, and that is the real point of this essay. You see, the sex and violence and drug use looks real. There have been many, many filmed accounts of the Manson murders, from docudramas to fiction to documentaries, but none of the previous efforts has ever tried to show what it was really like to be there and see Sharon Tate stabbed all those times, or to be lying on the grass next to the family members as they created one of their frenzied, drug-fueled orgies. This film does all of that, and does it convincingly and graphically. Van Bebber does not pull away his gaze when a more traditional filmmaker would.

Is that good or bad?

If you want to be coldly objective, you'd have to say that it is good filmmaking when the director makes you feel that you were a participant in the events portrayed, or at least that you were a fly on the wall. Critics did not all agree with my last statement, however. Some felt that the recreation of that sex, that drug use, and particularly that violence was simply a way to use tragic real events to justify the creation of a cheap exploitation film, which was akin to making a porn film about the holocaust. Those on the opposite side felt that the film's accurate portrayal was the one way to convey the true monstrosity of the people involved, and to show how the gentle hippies underwent a metamorphosis into blood-letting sadists, a transition which the sanitized film versions could never explain convincingly.

I'll leave the spin to you. I suppose about half of you will fall into each camp.  What I will state with some certainty is that the sex, drug use, and violence does seem real, and feels intense because it is driven by fast edits, desperate screams, and a hard beat on the sound track. It took Oliver Stone a massive budget with a lot of big stars to recreate this era in The Doors, but Van Bebber accomplished something very similar on a shoestring. That was an achievement. Is it something I enjoyed watching and would want to watch again? Hell, no. But that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile in some way. That which disgusts me is not automatically bad. In fact, one might argue that, given the subject matter, it would be bad if it did NOT disgust me.



  • Disk 1: full screen presentation (full frame); photo galleries. This is the unrated version. (It is 11 minutes longer than the R-rated version.)
  • Disk 2: interview with cast and crew, a documentary from the 1997 Montreal festival, and an interview with Manson himself.



There is a tremendous amount of male and female nudity - about as much as you'll see in any non-porn film. All of the family members (except Charles Games as Manson) are shown naked from the front and back. The modern day Goths are also shown naked as they prepare for their own murderous activities.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: almost three stars! Roger Ebert 3/4, Owen Gleiberman B-.

  • British consensus out of four stars: just short of two stars. Telegraph 6/10, Guardian 4/10, Times 2/10, Express 2/10, Mirror 7/10, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Although it attracted reviews from some of the top print critics, it was never in more than six theaters, and grossed a mere $19,000. The critical essays turned out to be Much Ado About Nothing.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C, a film with some major flaws, but one that succeeds quite well in portraying some things I wish I had never seen in the first place.

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