As a TV producer is in the middle of making a documentary about the notorious "Manson Family" 30 years after the fact, he gets harassed by followers. While an attack is planned to get him, we get to step into the truth of the history back in 1969 and witness it first hand.
My interest for serial killers never reached a place where I went out to watch all the documentaries or all the film adaptions, even though I at times wanted to. The morbid curiousity was always there, but then you meet some of those people who are annoyingly silly and saying things making it seem like they find it cool to appreciate the work of a killer, and I just roll my eyes and continue to skip the films. However, I have watched and listened to plenty of Charles Manson interviews because he's just a weird little man. My history lesson though, as always, fails me even on this man (I suppose Charles Manson and Ed Gein are two people you always know something about no matter what, though). I do remember watching the 1976 film "Helter Skelter" and digging it a lot, so I might go back to that soon, but right now we're gonna talk about the Jim Van Bebber adaption of the story.
It jumps between 1969 from before the brutal attacks (and all the way till after it's done) and 1996 where a TV producer is making a documentary about the case. It not only jumps between 1969 and 1996 but it also jumps to interviews and back to just regular ol' storytelling. We're allowed a closer look at not Charles himself, but his followers, because that's what this one is about. It puts the focus on what is going on in the Family while Charles is manipulating them, and those interviews I mentioned are with the members giving us details and showing regret. I guess I could go on about the actual story, but since it's a pretty known case (to some more than others) I will just leave it out of this one.
It's hard to say this is the most graphic adaption of the case as I haven't seen them all but I think it's very likely. It's filled with drugs, orgies and murder - especially the final act. The sex is plentiful and sleazy, and doesn't shy away (no penetration shots or anything, though) and while the violence doesn't always have top-notch effects, it's usually nasty enough for it to stay just between the lines of serious gore and silly splatter. It definitely works within the film.
As you'd want a film about the Manson Family to be, this is a very psychedelic film. Both in the events, but it carries a lot of that into the editing as well. First of all, it has the look of an old film, and not like "Machete" or whatever other modern film, but real grit. Not because it wants to pay homage but because it fits with the time. It mixes this style with some eccentric editing and colors, and it puts us straight into the atmosphere we need to be in to soak it in completely. I've read some reviewers not digging this, and while I can understand it to an extent I still think it's an important feat within the film.
Now, I can't say much about how exact this story is to the truth (someone did mention that the interviews sometimes covered things from real interviews, though) but I can mention something about the story taking place in the 1996 part of the film. The story with a gang of followers going after the TV producer. I didn't dislike this part completely, but I got the feeling that it wasn't needed at all as the film was good enough with the real story. It came off as being cheaper than the rest of the film, and served little to no purpose.
Jim Van Bebber hasn't made a lot of movies but the ones he has made are very strong films. From the short films, to "Deadbeat at Dawn", to this one - there's a variety of different talents shown from the filmmaker. It makes you which he'd just get back to directing films again before he croaks. "The Manson Family" is, as far as I know, a pretty accurate film about Charles Manson and his followers that manages to be both interesting (at times you forget it's not a documentary) and gruesome. The underground filmmaking fits perfectly with the film and Jim Van Bebber seems to be confident in what he made, therefor it works as well as it does.