Is It Even Possible to Make a Good Charles Manson Movie?

Screenshot: YouTube

Nearly five decades after Charles Manson instructed a handful of his disciples to commit mass murder, the grotesque allure of the Manson Family’s crime still persists. Manson was a charismatic cult leader, a hippie folk singer who believed himself to be the second coming of Jesus, who collected and subjugated young women into being his personal slaves. It makes sense to continually look back to the way Manson wielded control over women as we today parse through how men like Harvey Weinstein abuse their power and as allegations of cult-like behavior trail men like R. Kelly or Nxivm’s leader Keith Raniere.

There’s also a mountain of movies and TV shows dissecting the Manson Family, arguably too many than we need. There are TV movies from CBS and Lifetime, and what feels like countless true crime deep-dives, documentaries into Manson’s crimes, and dramatized TV shows featuring the cult-leader. There are books, from those inspired by the Family to straight tell-alls. Even though Quentin Tarantino has said his forthcoming new film would not be a Manson movie, with the Family just one part of the plot, it’s all anyone can seem to focus on.

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It’s here that director Mary Harron’s new film Charlie Says (out May 10) enters a crowded market. The movie focuses largely on the three women who were there the night of the famous Tate murders, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, imprisoned for life at the California Institution for Women. While in the prison, the three women take classes with feminist scholar Karlene Faith, whose book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten inspired Charlie Says’s script. In between isolated sessions in the prison, where the three Manson girls have still fully absorbed Manson’s radical, racist ideas of a “Helter Skelter” race war uprising and the idea that the girls would eventually become “elves with wings,” the movie flashes back to extended scenes at the Manson ranch before the murders.

If you could close your eyes and imagine what a movie about the Manson Family murders would look like, sound like, what the plot would be, I bet you could do it as easily as you could draw a picture of a smiley face on a piece of paper. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Charles Manson could do it. He is a crazy, bearded guy with wild ideas about the future, surrounded by lanky young white women with long hippie hair, who dance around barefoot in canyons while they dissolve acid on their tongues. There’s a long orgy scene, where naked bodies writhe by a fire, and Manson is all, “hey girl, don’t get hung up about sex.” People say things like, “I live in the now.” People say things like, “I dig it.” People say things like, “Kill your ego.” There are naked breasts everywhere.

Slowly, you see that women in the group, though they worship Manson, are abused by him. Men eat before the women, always. Women aren’t allowed to carry money. Women who talk back to Manson or do not otherwise adore him are physically assaulted or cast out of the group. And then there are the murders which Harron, who as director of movies like American Psycho and the excellent TV drama Alias Grace excels at artful, restrained violence, keeps minimal but no less disturbing. Everyone is really high when they’re murdering these people, one of whom is Sharon Tate, shown briefly begging for the life of her child. It is a horrible, brief scene, and yet torturously inevitable.

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You get the picture, because the picture has been made again and again. The problem with Charlie Says is that it feels, at times, like the movie equivalent of reading aloud the Wikipedia page for the Manson family. I’m not sure that’s entirely Harron’s fault, because despite the over-sensationalized draw of a man like Charles Manson, she’s ultimately working with simplistic material. Charles Manson and his following are so ingrained in pop culture that they’ve essentially become stereotypes of what a murderous hippie-cult might look like. Matt Smith does a fine job at playing Manson, but he also looks ridiculous in his shaggy wig and beard and sounds ridiculous because the source himself was also ridiculous. As culture has continually rendered these real people and this 1969 snapshot in history into costumed characters, every new incarnation of Charles Manson sort of just looks like a costumed character. These people don’t feel real because their actions were almost unreal to begin with, but also because people can’t stop reanimating them on-screen. Is it even possible to make a good movie about Charles Manson? I’m not sure it is anymore.

If the movie has one strong stance, it’s in its portrayal of Leslie Van Houten, who is still seeking parole. Van Houten was only 19 at the time of the Tate murders and says she stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 14 times, though the film supports Van Houten’s initial insistence that she only stabbed LaBianca after she was already dead. As the movie draws on Karlene Faith’s work rehabilitating incarcerated women, the movie also makes the case that Van Houten has been fully dedicated to repenting for her crime, and raises the question of whether women like the Manson girls deserved to be imprisoned for life. But it’s not quite enough to warrant a movie like this, an unfortunate, boring take on a crime that’s been recounted numerous times. It’s no fun at all to see what was once a horrific crime fail to shock or entrance any longer, but that’s what happens when pop culture continues to revive the Manson spectacle for entertainment.

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Correction: An original version of this post incorrectly identified Nxivm’s leader as Kenneth Raniere. It is Keith Raniere. Jezebel regrets the error.

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About the author

Hazel Cills

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel