Charlie Says Shines a Deeper Light on Charles Manson’s Family

Charlie’s angels: Sosie Bacon as Patricia Krenwinkel, Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houten, Suki Waterhouse as Mary Brunner, Dayle McLeod as Gyspy, Kayli Carter as Squeaky Fromme, Julia Schlaepfer as Sandra Good and Marianne Rendón as Susan Atkins. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

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?

Cult of Charlie: Matt Smith mesmerizes as Manson. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

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

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.

One Reply to “Charlie Says Shines a Deeper Light on Charles Manson’s Family”

  1. oh, golly, you have no idea, especially if you buy into bugliosi’s whole race-war theory. yes, these girls were victims of charlie, but if you think everything was planned out, as the movie suggests, complete with knife-thrusting sessions, then you don’t understand what the times were like, nor does the flick. a failure of imagination and/or a too slavish adherence to movie-making dictates has events following a linear path that shows more-or-less clear cause and effect, when it wasn’t that way at all. the abc documentary does a much better job of showing what 1969 was like. there were causes and effects, but none of it was clear. it was more madness than anything. and charlie was as mad as anyone. more mad, obviously. but helter skelter as the dominant impulse for what happened? it was in there but only as part of the whole mad mix.

    i wasn’t there but i knew charlie later in his life, and i’ve felt his breath of my cheek, and he’s worse than you can possibly imagine, but not even he had control over what happened. he should never have been released onto the streets of san francisco when he was. he knew that about himself. he often said that. he was a bad seed and, in many ways, a punk who was treated like a punk in his early prison years. and when he got out, he brought all his rage to bear on the outside word. but if he was a mastermind, he was the worst mastermind ever. it’s just a pity those girls had to wind up in his life. the whole thing was a mess. and no one will ever get the story right, no more than you can reassemble shattered glass. that’s the way it goes. but that won’t stop filmmakers from trying to profit from the madness and appear to be well meaning while so doing.

    manson should just be forgotten. but i’m no good at that either. even bugliosi, at the time of his death, couldn’t stop thinking about manson, trying to figure him out. it’ll never happen. never ever.

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