Films From the Void: MANSON FAMILY MOVIES is realistic, for better or worse

FILMS FROM THE VOID is a journey through junk bins, late night revivals, under seen recesses and reject piles as we try to find forgotten gems and lesser known classics. Join us as we lose our minds sorting through the strange, the sleazy, the sincere and the slop from the past and try to make sense of it all.

Watching the Cult Epics reissue of Manson Family Movies, one wonders if anyone has ever watched this and found it entertaining. The film wasn’t released until 1984, despite being lensed off and on from 1974 until 1979, and while director John Aes-Nihil is “a painstaking recreation of the daily lives of the members of Manson’s cult,” it’s very much like watching a horrid blend of grainy 8mm home movies, matched with a low-budget desire for cinema verite.

TL;DR: Imagine watching the stoned antics of hippie burnouts combined with the poor cinematography of found footage.

Yet, somehow, Manson Family Movies is fucking fascinating. I watched it twice, in order to see it a second time with director Aes-Nihil’s commentary, and while it’s borderline insufferable, it’s impossible to look away. It’s the lure of the silent film, right? Because there’s no dialogue, glancing away from the screen means you might miss something important.

If you’re the slightest bit familiar with the Manson family and their acts, the film’s not to hard to follow, despite a lack of dialogue. Some on-screen word bubbles clue the viewer into some of the more obscure on-screen goings-on, but for the most part, it’s pretty obvious: they get together, they do drugs, they have orgies, things start to get dark, people die, they go into the desert, end.

Faces and people change, lending the production an even more hazy vibe than it already does, thanks to a scratchy print and weird exposures. In his commentary, Aes-Nihil brings up the fact that the people depicted were in fact played by different actors over the course of filming, because people dropped out all the time. Some of those in Manson Family Movies aren’t actors at all: a black man being arrested in the Haight was captured on film as the crew shot other scenes, and some young Manson girls cooking dinner were literally just pulled in off the street when the expected players didn’t show.

Thinking on that last bit now, I’m astounded at the lack of personal insight held by the director when his movie of recreated Manson family activities also used girls found on the street.

But that’s the point, here — Manson Family Movies is supposed to be a recreation of the family’s activities, shot where the events actually happened, whenever possible. The idea is that this is a faithful recreation of the movies that the family were rumoured to have made, and then buried in the desert. Therefore, you get boring and you get weird, and you get uncomfortable, and the only point it really fails to be realistic is when you can tell that the actress playing Sharon Tate has a pillow under her dress or that nobody’s actually getting stabbed. Beyond that, it works.

That means that Manson Family Movies can drag a bit, but the Aes-Nihil commentary livens things up some, even if there are still some stretches with no sound beyond the Manson family’s music playing in the background.

Included is what’s supposedly Manson’s last interview, conducted by writer Bill Scanlon-Murphy in 1994. It’s from a VHS tape with some iffy audio, and is the standard Charlie ranting, but provides some interesting context for the faux found footage created by John Aes-Nihil.

This 2-DVD limited edition includes a bonus disc of Sharon Tate home movies, which are actual home movies shot of Sharon Tate. It’s a solid hour of Tate wandering around, and while there’s no information as to where they were sourced from, they look great. It’s actually the perfect palette cleanser after all that gore and dysfunction, as you see Tate wandering about in what are likely screen tests for something.

Manson Family Movies is available now from Cult Epics.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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