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Film / Manson (1973)

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Manson is a 1973 documentary directed by Laurence Merrick and Robert Hendrickson.

No, it's not about the lead singer of Garbage, and no, it's not about Marilyn Manson either. It's a documentary about Charles Manson and one of the most infamous crimes in American history, the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969. Charlie Manson was a pimp and petty criminal who got out of California's Terminal Island prison in 1967 and found himself in San Francisco during the "summer of love." Within a short amount of time he had branded himself a religious guru and acquired a motley group of followers which he plied with drugs and sex and entertained with tales of a "Helter Skelter" race war which would end with Manson's "Family" ruling the world.

The orgies and acid trips ended with nine murders in August 1969: first musician Gary Hinman, then five people at the home of Sharon Tate a few days later, then wealthy older couple Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the day after that, then ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea. The trial would be one of the biggest stories in American jurisprudence, not rivaled in terms of media attention until the O.J. Simpson trial a quarter-century later.

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Merrick and Hendrickson did not interview anyone convicted in the Tate-LaBianca killings, although they did get ahold of an interview Charles Manson had with Jerry Rubin, which is included in the film. Nor did they interview the prosecution's star witness Linda Kasabian.note  People that they did manage to interview for the film include:

  • Prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who speaks about the crimes and Manson's motives.
  • Former Family members Paul Watkins and Brooks Poston, who had disassociated themselves from the Family and testified for the prosecution at the Manson trial.
  • An old cellmate of Manson's and various cellmates of Family minion Susan Atkins, including Ronnie Howard, who provided the big break in the investigation when she gave Atkins's name to the cops. Howard describes in graphic detail Atkins's ghastly murder fantasies.
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  • Members of the Family who were still at large and loyal to Charlie at that time, such as first Family member Mary Brunner, and Steve Grogan who later went to jail for the murder of Shorty Shea. The trio of Brenda McCann, Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Sandra Good are interviewed at length; a couple of years later Fromme would try to assassinate Gerald Ford and spend 33 years in prison.

The interview segments are supplemented with stock footage and with quite a bit of footage of Family members at their hideout at the Spahn Movie Ranch, before the ranch burned to the ground in September 1970. Some stills from this documentary were used as illustrations in Vincent Bugliosi's bestselling book, Helter Skelter.


Tropes:

  • Cult: No doubt the most infamous one in American history.
  • Dated History: All the Tate-LaBianca murderers are introduced with captions saying "Death Row". The death sentences of the Manson gang were commuted to life imprisonment, along with those of everyone else on Death Row at the time, due to a Supreme Court decision made not long after this movie was filmed. (California later re-imposed the death penalty.)
  • Documentary: A low-budget affair shot on 16mm film.
  • Dissonant Serenity: The creepy zombie lack of affect displayed by Manson minions Brenda, Squeaky, and Sandra. They giggle and sing "Come and Get It" by Badfinger when asked if they're worried about cops. All say without hesitation that they would have participated in the murders if asked.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: A particularly gut-wrenching one as it involves a Real Life crime. There isn't a lot of crime scene footage in the movie other than the infamous words written on the walls in blood, but there is a shot of the never-used crib for Sharon Tate's baby, with a teddy bear inside.
  • A God Am I: The movie shows how Charles Manson never came out and said "I am Jesus", but did say things like he died 2000 years ago on a cross. Family members were only too willing to believe that he was the Second Coming.
  • I Have Many Names: Ronnie Howard is introduced first with her real name and then with her impressively long list of aliases.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Proof that the effect was being used in documentaries well before Ken Burns made it famous. Not only are still photos panned and zoomed, they sometimes move across the screen horizontally or vertically.
  • Narrator: A very hammy, over-the-top narrator throughout.
  • Skinnydipping: There's a scene with Family members doing this in a creek at Spahn Ranch.
  • Split Screen: Used a lot. The movie opens with all the defendants being shown in turn in three split-screen shots. Interviewees are introduced in split-screen shots. More split-screen shots are used to show the lives of the Family at Spahn Ranch.
  • Stock Footage: A fair amount. Lots of shots of the suspects being led around in handcuffs.
  • The Stoner: Manson follower Paul Watkins, who has the stereotypical half-lidded eyes and "hey, man" voice of The Stoner. He specifically says that the cloud of marijuana smoke that he smelled when he met the Family was what first induced him to stay. Later he goes into great detail about the many, many drugs that the Family used to indulge in.
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