Shot for a rumored $350,000 in Ohio (with a few cutaway exteriors in California), The Manson Family achieves the lush, sanguinary atmosphere of Dario Argento’s artiest set pieces with limited means. To re-create TV coverage of what was then the longest and costliest murder trial in American history, writer-director-actor Jim Van Bebber and cameraman Mike King located period 16mm video news film. Van Bebber then damaged the exposed rolls himself to effect the scratchy look of aging. “I’d take a piece of cheesecloth and kitty litter and run the negative through that,” he says.
The director completed his horror epic in 1997, but has since been making music videos (he’s known in industrial circles for his work with Skinny Puppy) while he searched for a theatrical distributor that wouldn’t force him to edit the gore or the orgies. In addition to Helter Skelter and the 1972 documentary Manson, Van Bebber’s script borrows dialogue and details from actual courtroom transcripts, as well as the frequently contradictory published accounts of the family members themselves. “I read everything,” he says. “This is not a piece of fiction. I am more or less transcribing history.”
But history dwindles to tabloid mythology after a few decades of exploitation. “We didn’t live through it,” says Van Bebber, who was four years old when the Tate-LaBianca killings grabbed headlines. “We saw it through representations.” The Manson Family alternates between 1969 and 1996, when a gang of Charlie-worshipping teens hunts a TV reporter assembling the latest hippies-gone-wild special. The enduring, undecided role of Manson in our pop imagination reflects our national failure to reconcile the idealism of the 1960s with the violence and nihilism that swallowed it. “This story isn’t over yet,” Van Bebber says.