Charles Manson Is Gone, but Movies Won’t Let Him Stay Dead

A 48-year obsession in film

Movies Features Charles Manson
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Charles Manson Is Gone, but Movies Won’t Let Him Stay Dead

There’s an argument to be made that you can’t really understand the 1960s and the hippie movement without grappling with Charles Manson—the dark reflection of the free love and mind-expanding drug wave that radiated out from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.

There’s another, better argument to be made that this gives Manson way too much credit. Reading about his life paints a picture of a man who was hurt by all those close to him and abandoned by a system that, by 1969, had kept him behind bars for longer than he’d ever been outside them. In light of that, why wouldn’t he grow to be a manipulator of people?

Every detail seems to belie the fanciful idea that he was some magical snake charmer. His cult’s twisted ideology supposedly spreads a message of evil to this day, but if you actually read accounts of his sermonizing, you find it was inconsistent nonsense in which he claimed to be Jesus and/or Satan, in which a race war was coming, in which the Beatles were talking directly to him through song. He was supposedly a criminal genius, but went ahead and had people murdered in places easily traceable to him, leaving evidence about willy-nilly so that only the well-documented incompetence of the Los Angeles police kept him from being apprehended sooner. He is renowned as a mass murderer yet didn’t actually kill any of the people with whose deaths he was charged and convicted. He was a criminal mastermind, yet he was caught almost immediately. He was a figure of fascination because he hobnobbed with famous people like the Beach Boys for a bit, but the impression I always get of the ’60s was that you could Almost Famous your way into that scene pretty easily if you had the right drugs and talked the talk. And most risibly, he’s regarded as this living martyr to Satanism and anarchy, but he remains alive only because the State of California commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment—otherwise we’d have been spared his occasional insane outbursts.

All that aside, Manson and the odd and damaged people who carried out his murders made an indelible impression on a terrified public, and the proximity of those murders to Hollywood high society preyed on the minds of the people who turn the cranks and pull the levers of the dream factory.

Those two nights in 1969, during which members of Manson’s “Family” Leslie Van Houten, Steve Grogan, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel killed seven people in their homes and decorated the crime scenes with bloody epithets they intended to start a race war known as “Helter Skelter,” remain infamous 48 years later.

Though the following list isn’t by any means comprehensive—that would be impossible—it’s a look at the breadth of the Manson obsession over the last half-century.

Tripping (1999)

It’s not a film that has anything to do with Manson where subject matter is concerned, but to understand the world through which he slithered, this documentary about proto-hippies The Merry Pranksters—the entourage of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey—includes archival footage of their mythologized 1964 bus trip. It might not tell you much about the day-to-day life of the 1960s, but it does its best to put you into the acid-induced mindset that was the counter-culture at the time, through the eyes of those who carried the banner for it.

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)

It’s possible the only reason Bobby Beausoleil wasn’t a participant in the Tate and LaBianca murders that made the cult infamous is that a few days earlier he had been arrested for the murder of another man. A regular on the Spahn Ranch compound where Manson and his devotees lived and performed orgies, Beausoleil was also an aspiring actor and artist, much like Manson himself. And, also like Manson, his ambitions would never come to fruition. This odd curio, another film which likewise doesn’t feature Manson and was shot before the evil acts that made him infamous, is still so tied in with the circumstances surrounding him that it must be mentioned.

An 11-minute film composed of whatever footage director Kenneth Anger could salvage, features a soundtrack by none other than Mick Jagger and Beausoleil playing Lucifer. The raw film was intended to be entitled Lucifer Rising, but a dispute between Beausoleil and Anger ended in Beausoleil absconding with the footage and allegedly burying it somewhere in Death Valley out of spite. It’s a weird, dark artifact that, like everything about the Manson phenomenon, drags famous artists into the realm of incoherent mystical weirdness.

The Other Side of Madness (1971)

Combining documentary footage with carefully staged reenactments—some of them in the same homes where the murders took place, for God’s sake—this black-and-white bit of sensationalism is most notable for having been made while the horror of the incident was still fresh. While the circumstances of it suggest crassness, the film itself is actually straightforward and dry about the proceedings themselves. It’s too bad the actors are kind of terrible.

Manson (1973)

For perhaps the most unnerving look at the cult of the Manson Family itself, this documentary features on-camera interviews with several family members before and during the trial for the Tate and LaBianca murders, and with prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.

Every documentary or dramatic retelling of the murders, every portrayal of the cult in fiction, pales in comparison to actually watching Family member and (future would-be assassin of President Gerald Ford) Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme calmly and evenly say, on camera with rifles and knives, that the Family will just go ahead and kill anybody who threatens them.

House of 1,000 Corpses (2003)

And for a callback to that very same on-camera interview, and for literally no other reason, you can sample Rob Zombie’s strange gore-fest. It’s a mess of a movie, but one of the things that jumped out at me—and actually made me angry—was the inclusion of a random little vignette, one of many peppered throughout the movie as bizarre non-sequiturs, in which one of the secondary characters spouts off a ridiculously specific line of dialogue lifted straight from the aforementioned documentary. The only reason I recognized it was that I had taken a class entirely about the Manson murders and ’60s counter-culture and had mere weeks before seen that documentary.

It’s an example of the most deeply vexing pet peeve I have about Manson and everything surrounding him, which is the emblematizing of his cult’s brand of incoherent nonsense and its use as some sort of banner to rally the anarchists in life. It makes no deeper statement, no more interesting connection, no compelling parallel. It is in a movie about dumb teens getting killed by weird hicks. It is a microcosm of every ham-handed Manson reference ever.

Helter Skelter (1976)

This two-part TV movie is an extended dramatization of Bugliosi’s tell-all accounting of his investigation and prosecution of Manson and the members of the Family. It does add some dramatic flourishes, including Bugliosi telling off Steve Railsback’s Charles Manson in one hilariously incorrect-in-retrospect exchange in which Bugliosi tells Manson he’s already been forgotten.

For the real rundown on the investigation and the prosecution, Bugliosi’s book of the same name, on which this movie is based, is your best source, detailing every stage of the murders’ aftermath. This film’s first part plays out like a procedural of the investigation, its second a procedural about the trial. For a closer look at the twists and turns that landed Manson in prison for the rest of his life, this is an important watch.

Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys (1990)

One of the long list of weird connections between Manson and pop culture was his association with the Beach Boys and producer Terry Melcher. His failure to break into folk rock in Los Angeles is thought to be one of the many motivators behind his violent aims. This made-for-TV biopic centers around the tumultuous times Brian and Dennis Wilson went through during their career, but is notable in that it features Manson as a character (though, again, that’s not really what the movie is about).

The connection between the two is more than just a strange fluke. The Beach Boys are alleged to have cribbed a song Manson wrote, originally entitled “Cease to Exist,” which they reworked into “Never Learn Not to Love.” At one point, Manson and members of the Family were even living with the Beach Boys (and taking copious amounts of LSD). It’s another bizarre detail that once again casts Manson’s shadow in broad daylight.

The Manson Family (2003)

To set itself apart from the pack of Manson dramatizations, this Jim Van Bebber movie is most notable for filming on Super 8, giving the proceedings the look and feel of home movies and taking the fairly novel tack of seeming to argue against Manson as a devilish Dr. Caligari mastermind and more as the charismatic head of a youth subculture that went wrong. It makes the proceedings look like the sort that actually would draw in horny youths: Free love and life outdoors.

Reviews are mixed and with good reason: The acting is all over the place and the film makes the weird choice of adding grainy interviews—all recreated, of course. It’s still the rare portrayal of the Manson Family that grounds the whole sorry mess in a sad, believable, hand-to-mouth reality.

Helter Skelter (2004)

And then, on the opposite side of the coin by the very same director, there is this film, which proudly and heartlessly wallows in the goriest details of the Manson murders themselves. Van Bebber’s follow-up features victims screaming and crying and begging for their lives, murderers spilling all manner of blood, and again, acting that it is hard to say is amateur or willfully ridiculous. Ebert said he might recommend it only because he believed viewers would never see its like again, then mused over the question of whether or not anybody would reasonably want to.

The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter (2009)

Never before or since has the term “post-mortem” better described a retrospective documentary – figuratively or, in this case, quite literally. Six Degrees, emceed by filmmaker Scott Michaels, features actual autopsy reports and deep dives into the locations where notable events occurred. It’s a thorough, even exhaustive, look at a series of incidents that by that point had been obsessed over for 40 years.

And it is obsession. Michaels displays in painstaking detail the audio, photographs, and reports and then spends time revisiting the same locations and individuals in the present day, going so far as to dredge up artifacts from the soil of Spahn Ranch—long-since burned down—with the aid of a metal detector. This, perhaps more than any other item on this list, shows the degree to which the carcass of the Manson murders has been picked clean.

Old Man (2012)

For a guy so infamous for so long, there are perhaps surprisingly few opportunities for the casual viewer to listen to Charles Manson spout strange nonsense. Old Man is an even longer and crazier ride than other interviews, featuring audio from extensive conversations between Manson and Canadian writer Marlin Marynick.

Listening to Manson speak in the handful of on-camera interviews he’s been allowed to participate in over the past 48 years is a strange experience. For me, it shows he’s in some ways a lot less and in others a lot more coherent than you might think. Mostly it leaves me mystified that lots of people were drawn in by it, brainwashed to the point where any ridiculous assertion he made was taken as literal gospel.

House of Manson (2014)

Debuting to mixed reviews, House of Manson focuses equally on the manipulative cult aspects of the man and also doesn’t shy away from the easy exploitation of the murders. It’s a relatively competent indie take on the material, one that clearly wanted to balance a true crime take with a treat for gore-hounds.

Manson’s Lost Girls (2016)

One odd circumstance of the Manson murders, and a thought I’ve rarely seen examined in any depth is that it is essentially the story of a man dispatching women to do his foul work for him. The women of the Family, and in particular those who participated in the murders on those two fateful nights in August 1969, are each their own distinct tragic figures. If you see interviews with Leslie Van Houten or Patricia Krenwinkle from more recent years, you see grown women who have spent nearly their entire lives behind bars, their death sentences commuted to life in prison over incidents that occurred decades ago and which they would surely not repeat.

Manson’s Lost Girls doesn’t seem to have garnered much of a reception, but, taking the perspective of one of the murderers, Linda Kasabian, it represents the very rare attempt to tell the story from the perspective of one of the women, following her as she joins up with the cult and follows through with Manson’s deadly aims.

There’s been much debate over whether Manson’s incarceration could even have been considered punishment for a man who had already spent the majority of his days behind bars. Watch an interview with the women and you’ll see who’s truly suffering in the aftermath.

Untitled Manson-era film by Quentin Tarantino, now in the works

In the wake of his departure from the sinking ship of The Weinstein Company, Quentin Tarantino’s next project appears to be a film set in the time period of the Manson murders, though buzz centering around it says that it may not focus on the murders themselves, but rather news and TV personalities. If so, I and anybody who feels a bit weird about sensationalizing the murders of real people are probably breathing a sigh of relief.

If Tarantino sews this film up with the same level of attention to detail as his other post-Kill Bill features, we may see this take on the material in a year or two, and it may mark the first such post-Manson feature film. It also shows what I think people knew the moment they first read the screaming headlines back in 1969: We may never hear the end of Charles Manson.

Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.