Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sticky Boxes: Manson (1973) Take a "Trip" in Manson's Magical Mystery Tour

by Jules Brudek

A column about VHS cult and horror gems not yet available on DVD or Blu-ray

I named the column “Sticky Boxes” because that’s what I touched day in and day out working at a video store in the Nineties. Sweaty handed customers brought back their rental VHS tapes encased in gooey grime. Everyday, I would check them back in, wipe them off and re-stock. Humorous note: the bigger the babe’s boobs were on the box the stickier the VHS box was upon return.

Each month, I will examine a hidden treasure from the deserted island world of VHS. Being that there are still so many horror and cult rarities that have not been released on DVD and Blu-ray it’s worth digging into my collection and reviewing some personal favorites.

Tonight’s Sticky Box:
1973 Documentary
Produced and directed by Robert and Laurence Merrick
Available on VHS:World Wide Video (Big Box), United Home Video (1984), and VEC (Canada)
Never officially released on DVD or Blu-ray
Film was banned in 1975 after Squeaky Fromme’s assassination attempt on Pres. Gerald Ford

*Note: Robert Merrick, the documentary’s director and producer, is selling the DVD-Rs of his films, Manson (1973) and his 30-year retrospective documentary, Inside the Manson Gang (2007), for $34.99 each plus shipping and handling on Ebay and Amazon.  Buyers beware; Manson (1973) looks like a low quality VHS rip so, it makes more sense to buy the original and rare VHS tape instead.  Another note, due to the ever-popular mystique of Charles Manson and his family, companies, like Beverly Wilshire, have been selling the unauthorized DVD for years, however, Manson (1973) has never been officially restored or released on DVD.

"These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn't teach them. I just tried to help them stand up.” – Charles Manson

I can’t seem to stop obsessing about the moment it all went wrong.  Since I was a pre-teen, I’ve dreamed about ingesting that one tab of dirty acid that must have sent a bunch of innocent California girls on a murderous rampage.  Straight out of a two minute Ramones’ song or a silly B-movie plot, the Manson Family was a goodie bag of low brow drive-in magic.  Take a maniacal, blood thirsty cult led by one lecherous sex-starved leader and place their patchouli soaked bodies to cook under the desert sun while writhing to The White Album consuming nothing but Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and dumpster salad and you’re only half way there. The truth was more complicated, weirder, and decades later, still hard to understand.
Charles Manson and his family would come to embody many things about the 60s counterculture; the outrage over the sappy and innocent 50s, war paranoia, racial tensions and drug psychosis. In retrospect the death rattle to the excesses of the 60s would sound on Aug 9th 1969 in a gush of blood that poured out of a violently slain Sharon Tate, an actress in her prime and pregnant with her first child.  The blood wouldn’t stop flowing until it drenched all of Benedict Canyon, a posh Los Angeles neighborhood in the hills where Tate and her friends were found dead.  The blood would smear the years of safety that the glamorous and wealthy people of California bought to protect themselves.  And when the blood started to clot, it was picked by reporters lusting after a newsworthy story until it flowed freely again like thick hot lava, covering the United States.  Now, people could put a face to their biggest fear.  Enter Charlie Manson.

Manson (1973), the documentary directed by Robert and Laurence Merrick, exists because America’s obsession with Charles Manson took firm hold in the 70s.  This is the quintessential Manson movie and the basic primer if you are new to Manson and his family because, unlike any other film, it documents them before, during and after Charles Manson’s arrest.  In an ironic twist to the story, Charles Manson would first be arrested due to his suspected vandalism in Death Valley National Park and not for the grisly LaBianca/Tate murders for which he would later be associated.

Sensationalist and often stylistically groovy, this documentary has it all. Some reviewers have said the film suffers from an unfocused editing style and a non-linear narrative. They’ve missed the point completely.  The film puts you in the mood for the shocking nature of the real events as they unfolded, 60s style.  That means 60s editing with 60s fades; 60s music and 60s bewilderment i.e. stoner culture.  Intuitively, The whole film works because it mirrors the highs and lows of riding Charlie’s Magical Mystery Tour.

The directors spent months following the family and filming them in their element. A feat no other filmmaker, for obvious reasons, has been able to repeat.  In one scene, they got close enough to the family that you could almost touch their pale limbs as they bathed as a group in the lagoons of The Death Valley National Park.  Some footage takes you on location to Barker ranch where they lived at one point and Spahn ranch where they spent most of their time.  Other filmmakers have tried to re-create or revisit these famous locations but have never captured it like this. The landscape, the tone, and the strange eerie homemade music capture the spirit of wild times on the brink of nadir. Moreover, the rare interviews add a certain mystery and depth because this documentary has the only available footage of certain family members talking openly before their imprisonment or disappearance.

Learn what really happened inside 10050 Cielo Drive that fateful night.  Learn about the real killers, “Tex” Avery Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian.  In some of the most disturbing footage, the most infamous and loyal of all family members, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, talks beef about Charlie’s enemies while loading and cocking a rifle.  Most shocking of all, Manson family members speak about their relationships with Charlie.  Honestly, the brainwashing is palpable because they reveal, in their own words, Charlie’s spooky magnetism and dominance.
Manson (1973) is one hell of a ride and one not soon forgotten.  I can’t help but think of all the books and movies that have taken a piece of this film and made a banquet. Every pop culture reference to Manson’s girls, heads shaved, walking the halls of the courthouse, can be traced back to this documentary.  It’s serendipitous how close the filmmakers got to the action before Manson was a national obsession. What an odd and fascinating chapter in the history of American pop culture.  Watch Manson (1973) before Lifetime releases its schlock, Manson’s Lost Girls, later this year.

I give this movie and its VHS presentation: four sticky gloops out of five.

****Below I’ve included more movies for future Mansonites to explore and enjoy!
 Go on and do the ‘Creepy Crawl!’

Movies depicting or documenting Manson and his family:
Helter Skelter (TV movie, 1976)
Helter Skelter (TV movie, 2004)
Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (Animation musical, 2006)
Manson Family Movies (1984)
The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter (Documentary, 2009)
Charles Manson Superstar (1989)
Manson, My Name is Evil AKA Leslie, My Name is Evil (2009)
The Other Side of Madness AKA The Helter Skelter Murders (1971)
Charles Manson Then and Now (Documentary, 1992)
Will You Kill for Me? (MSNBC TV Movie, 2008)
Charles Manson: The Man Who Killed the 60’s (TV Doc, 2015)
Manson (British TV Doc, 2009)
Manson: 40 Years Later (History Channel movie, 2009)
Manson Murders (History Channel movie, 2004)
Charles Manson (Unrated, TV Doc, 1987)

Movies based on Manson and his family (but really have nothing to do with them):
Love-Thrill Murders AKA Sweet Savior (1971)
Snuff (1976)
The Night God Screamed (1971)
The Cult AKA The Manson Massacre (1971)

My personal favorite Manson movies:
Manson Girl AKA Leslie, My Name is Evil AKA Manson, My Name is Evil (2010)
Cease to Exist (Documentary, 2007)
The Manson Family (Jim Van Bebber, 2003)
Manson (Documentary, 1973)

Looking forward to these Manson titles:
Manson Family Vacation (2015)
Haunting Charles Manson (2014)
Rainbow’s Edge (Documentary, 2011)
House of Manson (2014)
Manson’s Lost Girls (working title for Lifetime TV movie/miniseries)(TBA)

Can’t seem to find these Manson Titles:
Iconoclast (Documentary, 2010)
Old Man (Documentary, 2012)

More about the writer: Born in Detroit, Michigan, Jules Brudek has been collecting issues of Mad Magazine and  Fangoria since she was nine years old, even long after her worried mother drove her to city dump and made her throw them away.  She graduated from Columbia College Chicago in 2006 with a BA in Film.  She has won awards for her screenplays, most recently, placing in the Quarter Semi Finals in the 2015 Script Pipeline.  Life highlight: Attending a discussion about the obscure horror film, Raw Meat AKA Death Line (1973), and meeting the director, Gary Sherman. She lives in Los Angeles.

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