Getting away with murder?

Picture: Charles Manson, 2009

Getting away with murder?

Sunday Times (UK)/July 11, 2004
By Stephen Applebaum

He was jailed more than three decades ago, yet Charles Manson - career criminal, failed rock star, guru, shyster, psychopath, mass murderer - will not go away. On the contrary, 35 years after his followers "creepy-crawled" into the Los Angeles homes of the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, on August 9 and 10, 1969, respectively, and brutally slew the occupants, three new films - Jim Van Bebber 's startling The Manson Family, John Gray's Helter Skelter and John Roecker's stop-motion Live Freaky! Die Freaky! - suggest that interest in Manson and his psychedelic cult, the Family, is as strong as ever.

Why now? Why not? According to Vincent Bugliosi, the man who prosecuted Manson and then co-wrote Helter Skelter, the bestselling book about the case, Manson still receives more mail than any other inmate in the history of the American prison system. "Who is writing to him? Young, impressionable kids going through a rebellious phase view him as some type of anti-establishment hero, a glorious outlaw." His face adorns T-shirts, belt buckles, even thongs and posters ("He's a punk-rock icon," says Roecker), while his music has been recorded by the likes of Guns N' Roses, the Lemonheads and Marilyn Manson.

Gray, disapprovingly, calls it a "culture of cool". "I don't think people really remember, or have a clear enough idea, what he was responsible for," he says. "You've got all these pro-Manson and 'free Manson' websites, and it's pretty disgusting." To counter this shift in perception, Gray's remake of the wildly successful 1976 miniseries Helter Skelter shifts the focus away from the police investigation and towards Manson himself, exploiting our fascination to turn it into revulsion. At least, that is the hope. "I wanted to shine a bit of light on who he really was," explains Gray, whose film screened on the US network CBS in May. "He was a racist, he hated women and he was a cold-blooded murderer."

He was also the man who blew the hippie dream, suggests Van Bebber. And that, he believes, makes Manson relevant now. "As a society, we miss the freedom, the experimentation, everything that was coming out of the flower power movement. So we've got to look at ourselves and say, 'How did we f*** up?' And one of the most obvious poster boys for the death of the hippie movement and trusting people with long hair who smoke pot is Manson."

The Tate-LaBianca murders sent LA into a state of shock and sparked a media feeding frenzy. When news broke of a "death list" that included Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones, the Hollywood glitterati started turning their homes into luxurious fortresses. "You've got to understand, people in Los Angeles at that time left their doors unlocked," says Roecker. "The reason they lock their doors, to this day, is because of Charles Manson. They couldn't understand it. Manson on his own is just another scary man, but then he had these young, innocent cheerleaders go kill for him. People must have thought the whole world had gone completely out of whack."

Van Bebber distrusts Manson's followers more than Manson. "They're the ones who did the killing. I don't care how freaking charismatic he was, they didn't have to. So I don't buy that he brainwashed them. They just bought into his way of thinking, to the point where they said, 'Yeah, screw these people. They deserve to die.' I think you've got to keep the focus on them, because they're much more slippery than Charles Manson, who remains unrepentant."

His film, The Manson Family, explores Manson's world through the eyes of Family figures such as Susan Atkins, Charles "Tex" Watson, Patty Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, Leslie Van Houten and Bobby Beausoleil (played by Van Bebber). Footage of the Family shot at the Spahn Movie Ranch, where they dropped acid, engaged in group sex, played dress-up and fatally retreated from reality, all under the guidance of Manson, is meticulously re-created using actors. We hear them talking, using dialogue culled from documentaries, interviews and autobiographies, and get a strong sense of the madness that gradually engulfed them. Restaged news reports from the time of the Manson trial chillingly convey how frightening these people - with their shaven heads, Xs carved into their foreheads and threats of retribution - must have seemed at the time.

The film offers a critique of Vincent Bugliosi's claim that Manson was trying to start a race war based on signals from the Beatles' White Album ("I think all that was just drug talk that Charlie threw out to shock and amaze people") and tries to deflate the almost supernatural aura the prosecutor created around Manson. "Bugliosi would have you think Charlie stopped his watch during the trial," laughs Van Bebber. "That's not only in his book, it's in the remake as well. I thought, 'Oh my God, haven't you guys gotten over that one yet?'" When it comes to depicting the Tate-LaBianca murders, Van Bebber is unsparing. Shot in almost forensic detail, these scenes defy accusations of exploitation by being too horrific to be enjoyable, exciting or titillating. "I felt a moral imperative to show them that way," says Van Bebber. "If the murders didn't disturb you, I'd have failed in trying to remind you just what this case really is about: that people lost their lives. And all of Manson's rhetoric and all of the drugs and all of the sex really don't mean anything compared to these nights of horror. That's why they're in prison. I really tried to shove people's faces in it, so they don't act so glib about this stuff in future."

None of this probably would have happened, of course, if people had not allowed themselves to be duped by Manson. This is the underlying message of Roecker's puppet-based satire Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, which is currently edging towards completion. Inspired by a time when copies of Helter Skelter seemed to be more ubiquitous in American homes than the Bible, the film is set in the aftermath of an apocalypse, when a group of survivors find Bugliosi's book in the desert. "My point," says Roecker, "is that anyone can take that book, like they do with the Bible, and misinterpret it and use it for their own good. What I'm saying is: be careful what you believe in. Question everything. Question the Bible. Question the constitution. Question what the people in power are doing. The great thing about being a human being is that you can ask questions. People need to realise that, because right now we're back in the 1950s. It's worse than it ever has been, and I want to be able to say that."

From wannabe pop star to murderer to character in a puppet movie: it's been quite a trip for Manson. But it does not end here. The widely held belief is that, far from waning, interest in him is likely to grow. "It will probably get even bigger after he dies," says Van Bebber. "He's a myth now. God help us all when the true mythology and legend kick in." That could be sooner than expected. Toby Sale, of the Exclusive Film Network, a company currently working on an epic documentary about the Manson Family, claims it has unearthed evidence of "judicial corruption" that could "reopen the entire Manson case ... It supports a finding that Manson may not only have designed the murders, but controlled the actual trial outcome for the girl defendants via a deal with certain attorneys."

If this turns out to be true, a new chapter in the Manson saga may be about to begin. God help us all, indeed.

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