Cult horror director Jim VanBebber’s splattery 2003 curiosity The Manson Family gets a midnight revival this weekend for reasons that still escape me, so I’m choosing to just pretend it’s some sort of punk rock answer to Jurassic Park 3D.
One of those movies that’s way more interesting to read and talk about than it is to actually watch, VanBebber’s notorious bloodbath was a 15-year labor of love—if one can use such a word in this grisly context—that toured festivals in various unfinished forms rallying completion funds from fans. Guess that’s what you had to do before they invented Kickstarter.
Initially framed as a documentary made by a crass true-crime TV host (Carl Day), The Manson Family doesn’t stick to a single format for very long. Testimonials from actors playing Charlie’s angels are intercut with often jaw-droppingly stilted re-creations of the clan’s acid fueled idyll, with nonstop, exceedingly graphic orgies shot in period-specific zoom-crazy jump-cuts. The underground editing and porn-level performances have the stank of exploitation from another era, which was probably a lot more novel 10 years ago before stuff like grindhouse became an unbearable affectation for an entire generation of filmmakers.
And then there are the killings. Good lord, the killings. VanBebber could never be accused of skimping on stabbings, as the incessant puncturing of knives into flesh becomes an aural symphony I wish I’d never heard. There’s a mulish integrity in the sheer length of screen time devoted to these murders. Is VanBebber forcing us to confront the grisly forensic facts of a case so famous, we’ve all grown desensitized to the details? Or is he just getting off on it?
More interesting are cutaways to a modern day army of Goth psychopaths doling out bloody desserts for those who dare exploit the Manson legacy by wearing kitschy T-shirts or airing the documentary we’ve ostensibly just been watching. Again, it’s hard to figure quite where VanBebber is going with this particular provocation. Is he questioning our complicity in the celebrity afforded to monsters? Or is he, again, just getting off on it?
Ironic postscript: After Van Bebber’s epic struggle to get The Manson Family finished and shown in theaters, a scant two years later, Rob Zombie came along with The Devil’s Rejects, which is basically the same movie, except eight billion times better.
Fri., April 5, 11:59pm. Ritz at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead St. 215.440.1181. landmarktheatres.com