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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Manson, My Name Is Evil (2010) review


Kristen Hager (Leslie), Gregory Smith (Perry), Ryan Robbins (Charlie Manson), Kristin Adams (Dorothy)

Directed by Reginald Harkema

The Short Version: This mesmerizingly ambitious independent effort showcases a great deal of attention to detail including a satirically witty script that crams so much civic, political, religious and psychological banter in its engrossing 80 minute running time it would require a small book to contain it all. It's not perfect, but this Canadian production aims high and rarely misses its mark. A surprisingly accomplished, farcical horror based on one of the most notorious crimes in American history.

Perry, a man who has yet to find his identity among a time rife with war, assassinations and riots, ultimately falls for Leslie, a former cheerleader and homecoming princess who, after a few life altering experiences, finds herself one of the key members of the Manson clan of killers. Now a member of the jury trial against Leslie and her cohorts for the Manson murders, Perry battles with his carnal attraction to the lustful wiles emanating from Leslie's aura while the murderess herself struggles with how and why she has come to this point in life.

This Manson movie is as disturbingly American as apple pie. I say that because this simple low budget effort, burgeoning with creativity and ingenuity, erupts with style at regular intervals. It succeeds in detailing the savage cruelty of Manson and the followers he commanded to kill as well as capturing the decline of American society, eroded from its classic 50s/60s caricature painted by so many television programs and commercials of that time period.

In Harkema's apocalyptic vision of a crumbling and decadent America, there are a number of wars being waged--God and the Devil; the hypocrisy of the perceived white-bread family and the chaotic violence taking place at home and abroad; supporting one form of violence and decrying another; and also the psychological ramifications of ones dedication to religion whether to a "god", or to a devilishly messianic figure who takes on god-like proportions. There's also a heavy sexual subtext here between the character of Perry, his holy roller bride-to-be, Dorothy (she loves the lord more) and the lost soul that is Leslie.

Perry can barely contain his carnal desires and this is brought to the surface when he becomes a member of the jury against Leslie, but has a difficult time finding her guilty of her actions once he begins obsessing over her body. Earlier in the movie, while attempting to lure Perry into buying into her religious beliefs, Dorothy shows him a comic book detailing a young girl named Leslie bewitched by Satan disguised as a beatnik who gives her LSD sending her down a path to destruction.

Not only does Dorothy's preachy approach mirror events at the beginning and later in the movie, but it acts as a fascinating counterpoint between the propaganda spread through Christianity and the mock religious pandering of Charles Manson. Dorothy demands Perry "Make them pay", when referencing the upcoming jury trial of the devil's disciples. In the same breath, Charlie beckons his followers to do the same thing, to "Make the pigs pay". There are a number of other instances that are the same, but diametrically opposed to one another (especially the ending) that paint a devastating portrait of the fractured vision of society as we know it; the popular perception of "Good" in America and the "Evil" both within and outside it. If the visuals don't hammer home the films blazing, red hot message of a world gone wild, the soundtrack audibly conveys the manic horror around us.

The director tackles all these themes and ideas surprisingly well creating a mise en scene akin to NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994). It falters a bit in the acting department. Some of the performers seem robotic in their delivery, but that may have been intentional. Ryan Robbins becomes noticeably more intense as the movie wears on, but then, this isn't really about Manson than it is about one of his followers. The film mainly centers around Leslie (based on the real life Manson murderess, Leslie Van Houten) and her fall from grace and her inner struggle to cope with all the chaos and confusion around her prior to her fateful day of bloody butchery. In a twisted bit of artistic license, Robbins also plays Leslie's father during the opening sequence. Later in the film after she has become a member of Manson's clan, he refers to himself as "her father" and even utters some of the same dialog her dad had spoken at the films beginning.

This Canadian horror-satire stirred the ire of infamous filth filmmaker, John Waters who publicly condemned the film. The real Leslie Van Houten being a friend of his, he apparently feels the film paints her in a bad light. It doesn't, however, but shows her to be a fragile woman who succumbed to "Satan" when "God" had seemingly abandoned her. Considering the real Van Houten took part in some of history's most notoriously sadistic murders (not to mention continuously stabbing the victims even after they were dead), I don't see how anyone could feel any pity for this person. Shockingly, a petition was started in the early 80s for Van Houten's parole, but this was later denied. Her subsequent attempts at gaining her freedom have also been denied. Van Houten is 61 years of age at this time.

Regarding this film, there's such an abundance of artistic flourishes, a little unknown picture like this is a breath of fresh air when compared with the languid, inexorably mundane movies that pass for horror these days. The film has an amazing visual style about it that belies what must have been a modest budget. The acting, as already mentioned, isn't the best you're likely to see, but some performances rotate between static, to engaging. Still, ones not entirely sure if this is down to the blackly satirical nature of the movie and its bizarrely humorous slant which will likely offend some viewers. Clearly Harkema is a talented filmmaker and this production is frequently a thought provoking affair constantly batting two opposing sides back and forth from one another like a cinematic tennis match.

Both sides are presented as one and the same. Normality isn't too far removed from insanity and both sides share equal screen time. On more than one occasion, dialog is spoken with the same amount of reverence whether being spouted by Perry's war mongering, racist father, or his bible thumping, "Jesus Loves Me" fiance, or the sinister allure of the maniac Charles Manson. It seems Harkema is trying to say society is mad; it doesn't matter which side of the fence you're on. Both society and the government approves of "Controlled Killing", but denounces and punishes killing detrimental to the betterment of the human race. Civilization is a mere facade of its true self, covered in a mire hiding the savage within all of us. Whether you've found God, or not, we're all animals inside; we all kill.

The original title of this picture was LESLIE, MY NAME IS EVIL, but was apparently changed to draw more attention to the more widely recognized name of the controversial Charles Manson. This production stands up well with the classic 1976 mini series, HELTER SKELTER (with a frightening portrayal of Manson by Steve Railsback) and the thoroughly brutal, nearly two decade long in the making THE MANSON FAMILY (began in 1988; released in 2004) from Jim Van Bebber. Reginald Harkema's movie avoids becoming too graphic and remains predominantly a character study cum cinematic political treatise. It's well worth checking out. It's a low budget surprise filled with socio-political allegory (Stick around for the end credits to hear Nixon's speech regarding the war in Vietnam), racism, views on capital punishment and other controversial subject matter that will likely stir any number of feelings in viewers in reference to the sheer volume of topics that populate this evocative, uncompromising and satirical horror film.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate DVD


A.D. said...

I've seen this one around, but judging by the cover, I always thought this was going to be just another one of those shitty serial killer movies that's been pumped out in recent years - super low budget and not very good (based on the couple that I've seen anyway) - so it's good to hear that it's more than that. I've been wanting to see Van Bebber's MANSON FAMILY for a while and finally got it in the mail from Netflix about a month ago, but a different (and shitty) Manson movie was in the envelope. What did you think of the HELTER SKELTER that came out a few years ago?

venoms5 said...

Yeah, this one definitely shocked me as to how good it was. This is possibly the best indy horror I've seen in a while. Lots of style. It will likely require multiple viewings to catch everything the director put in here.

I didn't see the more recent HELTER SKELTER and wasn't aware there was one till Carl mentioned it to me in an email. I've only seen the one from 1976 back in the 80s and the Van Bebber version. I got that box set with his movies in it including his short films.

A guy like Van Bebber would make a good comparison to indy filmmakers of today, such as the case with that awful DIE-NER movie and others like it. Van Bebber could take a few bucks and make it shine. It might be rough around the edges, but his movies (and other filmmakers like him) have something that a lot of others do not.

But yeah, I highly recommend MANSON, MY NAME IS EVIL. In fact, I plan adding this to the collection. It's well worth owning at least to me.

Fang Shih-yu said...

The newer Helter Skelter focused more on Manson and his followers (the guy who played Charlie really did some homework on his impersonation). I recall reviews where some found this version "unnecessary", feeling the '76 TV film was enough on the subject. (Also, Steve Railsback is a tough act to follow!)

It's a dicey proposition, (basically) reminding people why Charlie, "Tex" Watson, Van Houten, etc. should remain in prison for the rest of their lives for the murders they committed. There seems to have been enough documentaries (how many of these has Vincent Bugliosi contributed to?) and other productions done within the past ten years (along with many reruns of same) that the sensation of exploitation (and/or glorification) hangs thick in the air, compared to the airing of the first TVM.

For another point of view, hunt down the DVD of the '73 doc Manson by Robert Hendrickson and Lawrence Merrick, featuring interviews with many "Family" members; its Wikipedia entry has the link to where to buy it.

The scariest thing about Charlie? He was/is a fox.

venoms5 said...

This movie doesn't even focus on the murders. Manson is a secondary character here. The main focus is on Leslie. I wouldn't consider this exploitation, either and it's surprising that Waters feels this puts his friend, Van Houten in a bad light, when it really doesn't at least not to me. There's very little blood at all. The courtroom theatrics of the clan are here, though, and what little that is shown of the LaBianca murders seems accurate enough. But supposedly Manson never murdered any of those people, he just commanded his "family" to do it.

Fang Shih-yu said...

You're definitely right about Charlie, venoms5!

This does appear to be worth a rental, at least!

If I recall right, Van Houten came from a fairly well-to-do family; so her break from this "conformity" is addressed in some way?

How would've John Waters reacted to the film if someone other than Leslie were "center stage" in this, or if she were not included at all?

venoms5 said...

Oh, yeah, it's addressed here. There's so much character parallels you might miss some of them amidst all the satire and political flag waving.

I think Waters took issue because Van Houten is his friend.

I'm definitely purchasing this one. It's worth owning in my book. More newer horror movies, ie low budget, should be this good.

Carl Manes said...

You know I'll all in on this one V, and at $3 on Amazon? Shit. I'll be grabbing it asap! I would love to see a review of both versions of HELTER SKELTER if you ever have time for them (what, 3hrs each?), and I am still on the fence about Van Bebber's film, but as a True Crime fan this looks like it will make for an excellent twist on the standard retelling of events. Been looking forward to it since you mentioned it via e-mail!

venoms5 said...

Yeah, I really liked this movie a lot, Carl. It's definitely going to be upgraded from a rental to a purchase.

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