If I had the energy, ambition, or desire, I would begin this review with a lengthy preamble about the reasons why Charles Manson and his so-called “family” continue to hold such a grim fascination for so many of us, but you know what? The internet is chock full of thoughtful and articulate (as well as a number of hopelessly dull and derivative) essays on that very subject already,to the point where there’s literally nothing I can say about it all that hasn’t been said already. Suffice to say that even now, nearly a half-century after the Tate-LaBianca murders sent shock waves through the nation (and, indeed, the world), those waves continue to reverberate in ways both expected and unexpected and the very word “Manson” has become firmly ensconced as the brand name of choice for murder, madness, and mayhem. No amount of haughty proclamations about the killings associated with him marking the end of the so-called “flower power generation” or the supposed death of American innocence (there’s any oxymoron for you) changes that fact. These are the most notorious crimes in our country’s history, and even though there have been more horrifying incidents both before and since, for some reason odds are good that they always will be, and Manson himself will always be America’s “go-to” bogeyman of choice.
And while I’m being lazy, let me just say that we won’t be delving into the richly sordid history of Manson (or his numerous marginally-fictionalized stand-ins) on film here, either. The heyday of “Mansploitation” is obviously long over, sure, but every now and then we still get a new “Manson-centric” cinematic production and I don’t see that ending anytime soon, either. The most recent entry into this loose canon (sorry for the lame pun) is writer/director (and fellow Minnesotan) Brandon Slagle’s House Of Manson, a decidedly low-budget indie effort filmed in 2014 in and around the Los Angeles environs that has spent the last 18 months or so making the rounds on the film festival circuit and is now available for streaming on any number of so-called “home viewing platforms” (I caught it on Hulu) as well as on DVD. Its most recent corollary is probably Jim Van Bebber’s equal-parts admired and reviled 1997 effort The Manson Family, but beyond a similar DIY-ish ethos, the two films probably don’t actually have that much in common beyond their lurid subject matter. Where Van Bebber embraced a mish-mash of experimental filming styles, Slagle plays it fairly straight, for instance, and ditto for the narrative through-lines followed by each flick, with Van Bebber slyly calling into question various aspects of the established version of events largely extrapolated from Vincent Bugliosi’s hopelessly blinkered best-seller Helter Skelter, while Slagle hews to a pretty tight “party line,” with most of his take matching up almost disturbingly closely with the self-serving view offered by principal- killer-turned-Christian-con-man Charles “Tex” Watson.
And therein, I think, lies the problem. For all we supposedly know about the “Mason murders,” I would contend that our “information” all comes from either prosecutors, cops, or people with a distinct motivation for making themselves look less guilty. I think it’s entirely reasonable to have more questions than answers about the whole thing even after all these years, but if you’re looking for anything other than the same sort of standard-issue reiteration of events that you’d find in any number of, say, Lifetime movies about “Charlie and his girls,” you’re not gonna find ’em here. There are some fine performances, to be sure — Ryan Kiser, in particular, is borderline superb as the most relatably human Manson since Steve Railsback (a take that was considered to be “too sympathetic” at the time and basically derailed the actor’s then-quite-promising career), but he can still flip on the “trippy guru” and “homicidal madman” switches fairly effortlessly at the drop of a hat, and special mention should also go to Devanny Pinn as Susan Atkins, Reid Warner as Tex, Serena Lorien as Patricia Krenwinkel, and fellow Daily Grindhouse contributor Tristan Risk as murder victim Abigail Folger, as well. Honestly, there’s a lot of good acting on display here, and some of it’s even great.
Is that enough in and of itself to make a film worth watching, though? Sometimes, sure, what the hell — but not when you already know everything you’re gonna see, and furthermore pretty much know it all by heart. When you’re treading territory this depressingly and horrifyingly familiar, it can be tough to find something new to say, no question about that, but again — there are so many lesser-explored tributaries coursing out of these tragic occurrences, not to mention competing theories as to why things happened the way they did and what the true motivations behind them were, that you would think it wouldn’t be all that difficult to, at the very least, give audiences something new or different to think about in relation to the Manson, for lack of a better term, phenomenon.
That’s not on the agenda here, though, which means that for all its laudable elements, House Of Manson is a rote and thoroughly unimaginative affair, a remake of no specific film, but rather of any number of them. It’s not without artistic merit, by any means, but it also seems to have no particular purpose. If you want to see what the Manson story looks like when it’s done with less money and lower production values than you’re used to seeing, fair enough, this is the movie for you. But if you’re looking for new insight or details or even just some semi-surprising little wrinkle you won’t find in a thousand other places, no such luck.
I know a lot of effort went into this production — behind-the-scenes stories about its truncated filming schedule and the grueling work that necessitated as a result of it make it clear to me that it was most definitely a labor of love. I just wish that I could love it back.