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Film / Charlie Says

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Charlie Says is a 2018 American biographical drama film directed by Mary Harron and written by Harron's frequent collaborator Guinevere Turner.

It is a story of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, centering on Leslie Van Houten, one of three women belonging to Charles Manson's "Family" that were convicted of murder. A grad student named Karlene Faith is given the task of snapping the three "Manson girls"—Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel—out of their trancelike devotion to Manson. As Karlene struggles to get through to the three women, the story of the Family plays out in a series of flashbacks. Leslie Van Houten joins the Family as a wide-eyed hippie girl on a voyage of personal discovery. She is sucked into Charlie Manson's cult, becoming a devoted Family member even as she occasionally questions the nonsense in Charlie's teachings. Meanwhile, Charlie has dreams of becoming a rock star, but when an audition for a record executive goes badly, Charlie's thoughts turn to murder.


The film stars Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houten and Matt Smith as Charles Manson. Also appearing are Merritt Wever as Karlene Faith, Chace Crawford as Tex Watson, Bridger Zadina as Paul Watkins, and Annabeth Gish as Virginia Carlson, the prison warden.

Charlie Says provides examples of:

  • Anti-Villain: The members of Manson's cult are presented this way. They are a bunch of thieves and murderers, but are portrayed less as psychopaths and more as very impressionable, and thus susceptible to the influence of someone like Manson.
  • Control Freak: In spite of the laid-back hippie persona, Manson keeps his "family" on a short leash, which he only tightens more and more as the movie goes on.
  • Cult: One of the most infamous ones ever, as Charlie Manson convinces a group of young people to worship him and, eventually, murder for him.
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  • Disproportionate Retribution: It's heavily implied that Charlie had initially planned to have his followers murder Terry Melcher as revenge for Melcher not signing him to a record contract.
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: A ghastly example in the first scene. After murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Tex and Katie drink their milk and eat a watermelon from their shower.
  • Feet-First Introduction: How Terry Melcher the record producer is introduced, with his boots as he gets out of his car. Notably, Melcher is the first visitor to Spahn Ranch that isn't under Charlie's spell and the first to have something Charlie wants, a record contract. Charlie doesn't get a record contract, and things start to get very dark.
  • Flashback: The story of the Manson Family and Leslie's experience in it is told in a series of flashbacks, interpolated between the scenes of Karlene talking to the girls in prison in 1972.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The only bit of violence directly shown onscreen is Tex Watson slashing Sharon Tate's cheek, and there's a quick cut away after that. Everything else we see is the aftermath, with blood-soaked murderers and bodies on the ground. There's also the camera remaining tightly focused on Leslie's face as she stabs the apparently already dead Rosemary LaBianca, and winds up spattered with blood.
  • Hippie Van: The Family drives around in a schoolbus painted black, one of many details in this film taken from Real Life.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Matt Smith is quite a bit better looking than the real Manson and is considerably taller, standing at six feet in contrast to the 5'2 Manson.
  • Historical Domain Character: All of them, including Karlene Faith.
  • Horror Hippies: Charlie Manson's murderous hippie cult. The Real Life original was of course the Trope Maker.
  • Hypocrite: Charles Manson is this in spades. Every single thing he preaches, he himself goes against in some way:
    • Discourages his followers from talking about their lives before they met him, but frequently brings up his own past quite often, namely his time in prison.
    • Preaches following a hippie lifestyle and respecting nature, but has his followers go out and kill a deer because he thinks that wearing a buckskin outfit will impress a record producer he's trying to sign with. He's called out on this particular bit of hypocrisy and rather than address it, he just pivots away from it by comparing himself to Jesus Christ.
    • Claims to believe in free love, but if any of his followers sleep with anyone not personally approved by him, he becomes angry.
    • Tells his followers that they are free to leave at any time, but uses abusive manipulation tactics to make them stay.
  • Imagine Spot: Not long before the murders, Leslie's biker boyfriend comes to the ranch and, with two of his buddies behind him as backup, asks Leslie to leave there with him. She says no. The film ends with a deeply sad Call-Back imagine spot, in which Leslie imagines hopping on to her boyfriend's bike, riding away, and saving herself.
  • Important Haircut: The girls shave their heads as a way of expressing their devotion to Charlie Manson.
  • Let the Past Burn: Tex Watson symbolically burns his driver's license, cutting himself off from his past life as he devotes himself to Manson.
  • Meaningful Rename:
    • Manson gives all his followers new names, symbolizing them cutting themselves off from their pasts (and becoming his slaves, of course). He christens Leslie "Lulu".
    • Similarly, when "Lulu" asks Katie to call her "Leslie" again near the end of the film, it symbolizes her rejecting Charles Manson and reclaiming herself.
  • Pregnant Hostage: Averted. Sharon Tate offers herself as a hostage to the Family so that she can be allowed to have her baby. She's killed anyway.
  • Romanticized Abuse: A very dark example showing Manson's rage and the depth of his control over his followers. Charlie hits Sadie in the face repeatedly, then they start kissing. When an astonished Leslie asks if she's OK, Sadie says "Being hit by the man you love is no different than making love to him. Charlie just gives me what I need."
  • Shameful Strip: Played with. At one of his rap sessions, Charlie zeroes in on Sandy (Sandra Good), who he says is having trouble letting go of her ego. He orders her to stand up and take her clothes off, and, when she hesitates, he tells the other women to strip her. As Sandy stands before the group naked and on the verge of tears, Charlie talks about how she's beautiful and perfect and anything wrong with her is her parents' fault. Then all the others tell her she's beautiful and kiss her, ending with Charlie kissing Sandy's feet as a still-naked Sandy beams with pride. This is one of Charlie's methods for brainwashing people into being his disciples.
  • Shown Their Work: This movie is a very accurate account of the Tate-LaBianca murders. The killers really did use the LaBiancas' shower and eat from their fridge. The Family really did use a school bus painted black. Sharon Tate really did beg her murderers to take her with them.
  • Shower of Angst: The first shot shows Leslie, seemingly in a daze, in the LaBiancas' shower, showering off the blood.
  • That Man Is Dead:
    • Susan Atkins's devotion to Manson is demonstrated when Karlene addresses her as "Susan", and she says "I'm Sadie. Susan's dead, Charlie named me Sadie."
    • Back in a 1969 flashback, Tex Watson burns his driver's license and says "Tex Watson is gone", as he dedicates himself wholly to Charlie.
  • Title Drop: "Charlie says" is a Catchphrase of the Manson girls, but it's symbolic when Katie answers a question with "Charlie says—" and Karlene interrupts her with "But what do you think?".
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue:
    • Karlene Faith remained friends with the Manson women until she died not long before the movie came out. She asked the producers to make clear that Leslie Van Houten was not involved in the film.
    • All three Manson girls eventually rejected Charlie. A few years after the 1972 setting they were released into the general prison population. Susan Atkins remained a Christian and died in prison of brain cancer in 2009.