Toiling for years on the psychotronic fringes of festival culture, indie gore-meister Jim Van Bebber has never had one of his films released—until now, his nascent 1997 chronicle of the Manson saga saved from post-production oblivion by the sympathetic souls at Blue Underground Video. The Manson Family is cut-rate but surprisingly savvy about its protagonists—particularly Bobby Beausoleil, played by Van Bebber—as well as stunningly evocative of its period. Nearly Maddin-esque in its re-creation of early-’70s exploitation movies, down to the faded-stock cinematography, desert sunsets, and optically printed titles, this version of the paradigmatic anti- Summer of Love saga is a film the family might’ve made themselves: sophomoric, hagiographic, amateurishly strobe-happy, and thoroughly hippiefied.
Van Bebber doesn’t go completely faux-authentic à la 1984’s home-movie dupe Manson Family Movies, but his formal strategy is characteristically punkish—equal parts Kenneth Anger, Craig Baldwin, Oliver Stone, and Russ Meyer. The Manson saga is recounted in various layers, including an interview-based documentary, spliced alongside a contemporary subplot about naked, smack-inhaling, Charlie-inspired nihilists gearing up to murder the TV producer responsible. The juxtaposition is asinine, but the period scenes, despite wildly uneven acting, can be wicked, particularly Beausoleil’s murder of Gary Hinman, played as a drawn-out, near-comic fumbling absurdity.
Bloodletting isn’t Van Bebber’s only preoccupation (the fate of Sharon Tate’s in utero baby is thankfully overlooked); he spends more time evoking the ’60s aura of field sex and dopey post-adolescence. Manson himself (Marcelo Games) makes little impression, and the sociopathy at work isn’t illuminated any more than it was in Helter Skelter. But Van Bebber struggles to ironically recall the time and place, and the vibe is groovy.