Killing You Slowly

A new Manson Family movie is a bloody, gutless affair.

The Manson Family Tower City Cinemas
Marcelo Games plays Manson with Three Stooges flair.
Marcelo Games plays Manson with Three Stooges flair.
The punk-hipster appeal of filmmaker Jim Van Bebber is based on half a dozen lurid, no-budget gorefests like My Sweet Satan, in which a suicidal teenager gets strung out on dope and starts worshiping the devil, and Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin, whose maniacal protagonist insists on scraping his dinner off the local pavements. Understandably, midnight-movie cultists seem to be enthralled as much by Van Bebber's occasional tongue-in-cheek humor as by his brazen cheesiness. But The Manson Family, the Dayton-born director's latest low-rent foray into sex, drugs, and ultraviolence, hasn't got a laugh in it -- unless some twisted wackos out there find amusement in the dismemberment of Sharon Tate.

Why Van Bebber would choose to revisit the Charlie Manson mess is anyone's guess: The harrowing, beautifully acted TV movie Helter Skelter retired the subject, cinematically speaking, way back in 1976. In any event, the new effort is nothing more than a blood-drenched bit of exploitation, made for about 200 bucks, which purports to show us the Manson magnetism, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and by implication, the demise of '60s youth culture, from the point of view of the deluded killers themselves. True to form, Van Bebber reduces the whole thing to trash horror and soft-core porn. Incoherent trash horror and soft-core porn. Vincent Bugliosi might do well to bring charges for crimes against the art cinematic.

Want to know more? A symbolist of no small gift, Van Bebber opens the movie with the vision of a breeze-rippled American flag, then douses it with movie blood; next, a field of pretty flowers gets soaked bright red. This is bad news for the Love and Peace era. But before everything goes to hell, we get a tour of the ranch in the good old days, when family members were dropping acid every morning, searching for God, and happily copulating in the sun-kissed meadows -- mass couplings depicted in fleshy detail. "That's what Charlie said the whole universe was about," one blissed-out follower informs us. "One big fuck." Good old Charlie. Never short on philosophical insight.

This Manson, portrayed by someone named Marcelo Games, wanders around the property like a deranged midget, shouting at people and sometimes laughing hysterically. The guy may have thought he was Jesus, but Games plays him as one of the Three Stooges, probably without intending to.

By the time our wayward, knife-wielding kids get into their burglaries and massacres, this mess of a movie has lost all sense of purpose and direction, except for the obvious pleasure its perpetrator takes in slashing throats and stabbing chests. Give Van Bebber credit, though, for a kind of dim, low-wattage honesty. He doesn't even pretend to look for deeper meaning in this frantic, clumsy retelling of the Manson tragedy. For him, letting blood and getting stoned and indulging the prurient interest are their own rewards.

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