Greetings again from the darkness. Author Joan Didion wrote “the 1960’s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969”, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that tragic night … actually two tragic nights (August 8 and 9) … there is no shortage of recollections and reenactments through both print and visual media. For anyone who was alive at the time or has read the story since, the grisly murders and cult commune lorded over by Charles Manson remains nearly beyond belief. Unfortunately, it’s all too real.
Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner previously collaborated on AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) and THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2015), and here, “inspired by” books from Karlene Faith (“The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult”, 2001) and Ed Sanders (“The Family”, 1972, also one of the film’s producers), we get a glimpse of the Manson cult through the eyes of the women, especially Leslie Van Houten. And let’s be honest, that’s where the real mystery is. A domineering, arrogant, white supremacist is not nearly as interesting as the story of how these women became so enchanted by him that they were willing (even anxious) to murder innocent people on his behalf.
Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) stars as Leslie Van Houten, nicknamed “LuLu” by Manson not long after they meet for the first time. We see Van Houten, Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) in an isolated cell block of a California Women’s Prison five years after the murders. They are going through therapy sessions with Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver, “Godless”) whose goal is to remind them of who they were before meeting Manson.
During the prison therapy sessions, we get flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch where Manson ruled over his followers which also included Mary Brunner (Suki Waterhouse), Squeaky Fromme (Kayli Carter), Linda Kasabian (India Ennenga), and of course, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford), who initially comes off as quite aloof, but eventually buys in totally – in a most violent manner. It’s these flashbacks that are meant to help us understand the brainwashing which stuck with these women through the crimes, through their trial, and through years of incarceration. We hear the “garbage dump” song. We hear about money and ego. We learn that ‘the new rules are no rules’. We see Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star shattered by music producer Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day) after his introduction from Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys drummer), who hung around the ranch sometimes. And we hear Manson’s rantings about the correlations between The Beatles’ White Album and the Bible, and about how a race war is coming (and it’s named Helter Skelter).
Matt Smith plays Charles Manson, and oddly enough, this comes on the heels of his playing artist Robert Mapplethorpe in MAPPLETHORPE (2018). Smith seems to have fun with the role, but it’s these segments that feel underwritten. We want more of an explanation of how this could happen. On the other hand, the therapy sessions in the prison actually provide more insight to the lasting effects of the man and the cult that brainwashed them right into committing cold-blooded murder and a life behind bars. The thankless job of a prison therapist becomes clear as Ms. Faith realizes that if she breaks the Manson spell, these women will be forced to live with the unimaginable atrocities they committed. For a different perspective, track down the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER that was based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book. It starred Steve Railsback as a terrifying Charles Manson.
watch the trailer: