August 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Manson family murders, and there’s no shortage of inspired content. So far, three feature films that directly reference Charles Manson are on the way: Quentin Tarantino’s anticipated (and rumored final directorial effort) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; The Haunting of Sharon Tate (a horror movie out already through VOD, starring Hilary Duff of all people); and Charlie Says, a film directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) and written by frequent collaborator Guinevere Turner. Also out right now is the ABC documentary series 1969, which focuses on the Manson family and their killings.
So with all this revived Manson mania, how do you make a film about the subject in a new way that doesn’t feel like a bad rip-off of Helter Skelter, the 1976 television film based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi about Manson and his depravity? Make a film about the Manson women.
That’s what Harron and Turner did in Charlie Says. Based slightly off Karlene Faith’s book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult, this film directly (and smartly) chooses to focus on the perspectives of three of the women who carried out the wannabe rock singer/cult leader’s crimes: Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel. They, along with fellow followers Tex Watson and Linda Kasabian, brutally stabbed actress Sharon Tate and her house guests, among them Abigail Folger and Jay Sebring, as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their respective mansions.
Charlie Says revisits the night of Aug. 9, 1969, on Cielo Drive, but it mainly takes place years later, as the girls serve the first years of their sentences in isolated confinement at a California penitentiary. It is here that they, still clinging to Manson’s predictions of a so-called race war and a plan to live underground, are slowly deprogrammed by Faith, then a graduate student who was already working with incarcerated women when offered the unenviable position of teaching the still-young cult followers.
At this point, Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Atkins (Marianne Rendón) and Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) are every bit as fervent and steadfast in their beliefs as you’d expect brainwashed cult followers to be. They prattle on about Charlie’s teachings about race wars and the existence of fairies, and they protest Charlie’s incarceration by shaving their heads. Thus Harron and Turner pointedly pose the question that seemingly everyone has asked about the women since their public trials began: Were these normal young women, under the strange tutelage of this master manipulator and con artist, also victims?
Whether or not you feel sympathy toward them, Charlie Says looks into the women’s deep faith in their man Charlie, helping the viewer to understand how powerful his mythos was during a time when countercultural figures reigned supreme in youth circles. Demystify Manson as a madman, and their subsequent realization of the severity of their crimes makes their story all the more tragic.
All in all, this is perhaps one of the best cast films about the Manson family that I’ve ever seen, with a strong Murray as Van Houten, Chace Crawford as Tex Watson, Cameron Gellman as a spot-on Bobby Beausoleil, Kayli Carter as Squeaky Fromme (who, as one of the most visible members of the Manson family, deserved a larger role), and Matt Smith as Manson. While I panned Smith’s portrayal of the abrasive ’80s photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s methodical weirdness here made for the best Manson ever.
As much as I loathe seeing more films and television shows about Manson and his hive, Harron and Turner’s version did the subject matter right by ripping away the sensationalism of the family’s horrible crimes and showcasing the humanity in the Manson women. By peeling away their crazed layers, we see they were just women who were cravenly manipulated to kill off more of themselves by those around them.
Charlie Says was directed by Mary Harron; written by Guinevere Turner, inspired by the book by Karlene Faith; and stars Hannah Murray, Marianne Rendón, Sosie Bacon and Matt Smith.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.