2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Manson Murders — a tragic chain of senseless killings irreparably changing the world forever, and once broadly referred to by Don McLean as one of “the days the music died.” As is true with just about any point in time of this historical caliber, these events have been dramatized in various ways via the cinematic medium. With three films on the subject being distributed this year alone, I decided the time was right to witness and rank each and every one of them that I could get my hands on.
It’s curious — if perhaps fruitless — to envision how history might’ve played out differently had these atrocities not taken place, and indeed several of these films propose just such a reality. Something I learned very quickly while doing the research for this list is that this specific bullet point of history is incredibly difficult to effectively dramatize. The line between genuine artistic expression and tasteless exploitation revealed itself to be a fine one, and many of these films sadly found themselves on the unsavory side of it.
Granted, most of them have not achieved any semblance of fame or recognition, and I doubt that anyone else has chosen to view them in rapid succession — in fact, I’d strongly recommend NOT doing this, if for no other reason than to preserve your own sanity. That said, there are a precious few of these that stand out as being artistic, informative, and genuinely valuable works; I just had to dig through an offputting onslaught of muck and scum to find them. With that said, let’s begin with:
12. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
The undeniable nadir of this entire sub-sub-genre is not so much a dramatization or exploration of history as it is a horrid exercise in adolescent hatred and all-too recognizable human misery. It’s an unforgivably long 70-minute re-interpretation of the murders, diabolically seasoned with every kind of prejudice there is, fickle attempts at edgy humor, and a despicable proposal that maybe Manson had a point. There’s nothing whatsoever to be found here outside of reprehensibly immature musings on the broken soul of humankind. While there’s certainly a place for that kind of reflection, this may well be the furthest from it. It’s honestly one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and the less it’s talked about, the better we’ll all be.
11. The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019)
The first of three films this year to focus on these murders is easily the worst, and it is only saved from a failing grade by a hazy and distant admirability of intent. It posits an alternate reality in which Sharon Tate begins to have mysterious visions of her doomed future and ends up surviving the attacks, along with her friends — all under the pretext of an undercooked “what is destiny anyway” narrative umbrella. It’s utterly incompetent in just about every way, and it winds up feeling like poor low-budget horror fare, made even worse by its misguided attempt to comment on history. It’s a naively exploitative misstep that looks, sounds, and feels bad, and it should count itself lucky that it’s not in last place.
10. House of Manson (2014)
Despite having watched this only a few weeks ago, I can’t remember a single thing about this low-profile biopic besides a general amateur atmosphere and a mistaken attempt to tell a “cool origin story” of Charles Manson, ostensibly asking for some form of sympathy and/or affection for the evil cult leader. It only gets a slight benefit of the doubt out of sheer indifference alone, but it’s clear to see that this one serves practically no function.
9. Honky Holocaust (2014)
It was likely only a matter of time before the shlocky independent distributors at Troma Entertainment (of The Toxic Avenger fame) would touch on the Manson Family. Sure enough, along came Honky Holocaust in 2014, a film proposing an existence in which Helter Skelter, the apocalyptic race war presaged by Manson, proved to be true. With Charles dead of old age, it’s time for his daughter Kendra to emerge from the bunker and do right by her Family, but she learns over time just how wrong her late father was. It’s amateur, cheap as hell, and downright sleazy, but there’s just enough passion behind it to be worth seeking out to TRUE completists. All others need not apply.
8. Manson Family Movies (1984)
Legend and rumor have it that the Manson Family members were known to film their activities at Spahn Ranch (and elsewhere), and this deliberately amateur film is designed to present what some of those videos might have looked like. It’s an interesting idea that immediately outstays its welcome —there’s no reason for this to be any longer than a short — in spite of some genuine artistic prowess in recreating the aesthetic of a crudely-made home movie. The unfortunate absence of dialogue in favor of cheeky intertitles highlights the artificiality of it all, in a way that amplifies the general emptiness beyond the premise. It’s a vaguely notable footnote, but that’s about all it deserves.
7. The Other Side of Madness (1971)
The very first cinematic adaptation of the Manson Murders, made before the murder trial had even concluded, is the prototypical adaptation in many ways — in spite of being almost completely forgotten today. The low budget is present yet again, but it re-enacts the events with an earthy frankness that, if nothing else, lingers on a purely visceral level. Sadly, the film is dramatically hindered by its inherent lack of historical perspective, indicated by the final title card trivially warning against the danger of drug use. The opening titles do acknowledge this by stating their intent to simply dramatize the events as they were perceived at the time, so this might be worth seeking out as a historical time capsule, regardless of the ineptitudes throughout.
6. Helter Skelter (2004)
Designed as an all-encompassing chronicle of the murders and subsequent trial, the second TV movie to be entitled Helter Skelter is unique in its narrative approach — one which revolves around Linda Kasabian, a defector of the Manson Family who played a key role in their ultimate sentencing. It effectively touches on Manson’s imposing magnetism, while also remembering how much of a monster he was. What results is at least the beginning of a good movie. It fails to escalate beyond that, for reasons having to do with its underwhelming rehashing of the murders themselves. But, for what it’s worth, there’s value here that doesn’t exist in any other film on this list, so I can at least admire that.
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Though the activities of the Manson Family are only one piece of the puzzle here, Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, is the newest and perhaps most high-profile of any of these titles. And it is, unsurprisingly, somewhat polarizing. Listeners of Cinemaholics might know that I was decidedly less positive than either of the main hosts, and many of the reasons for that had to do with the portrayal of the Family members. Deliberate historical inaccuracies aside, there’s a questionably directed sense of vengeance in the climax that I can’t see as being anything beyond excessive and indulgent. There’s certainly craft and artistry to be found throughout the film, but it amounts to very little in the context of this list. Frankly, I didn’t think it rose above any of its individual parts, but some of them are just good enough to earn a relatively high slot on this list.
4. Manson: My Name is Evil (2009)
Manson: My Name is Evil is an anomaly of a film — the likes of which I can’t say I’ve seen in a long time. It tells the fictional story of Perry, a straight-laced juror in the murder trial of the Manson Family who uncontrollably falls for follower Leslie Van Houten, and must wrestle with his own emotions in order to serve justice. It’s exploitative by its very nature, and I don’t have the faintest idea what the point of it all is, but what ultimately results is one of the most morbidly enjoyable works of art I’ve ever seen. It’s so sappy and implausibly melodramatic that it somehow transcends its own potential insensitivity and becomes a masterpiece of presumably unintentional humor. It’s wrong, but it feels so right, and it’s truly one of my guiltiest cinematic pleasures of recent memory.
3. Manson Family Vacation (2015)
Manson Family Vacation might be the strangest film on this list (which is certainly saying something…), and whatever value it may have stems primarily from its odd qualities. It’s a straightforward “estranged siblings living dramatically different adult lives reconnecting after the death of a parent” story in just about every way. The difference here is that one of the brothers is completely infatuated with the Manson Family, to the point of possessing extensive knowledge and demanding to visit various landmarks tied to the Family. The other brother is forced to constantly wrestle with this perplexing familial trait. It’s another premise that sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it’s told with a surprising degree of sensitivity. Somewhere beneath the surface of it — and not very far down at that —is a story about coming to terms with the negative influences of the past and moving ahead. As it stands, it lacks the exploration that a more ambitious creative team would’ve aimed for, and it has a questionable twist towards the end that does the story no favors.
2. Helter Skelter (1976)
Helter Skelter is over 3 straight hours of detailed courtroom talk and cold, hard facts, and it might be the most riveting film on this list. Based on Vincent Bugliosi’s nonfiction book of the same name, this two-part television film is often seen as the definitive cinematic version of the events, thanks in no small part to Steve Railsback’s striking portrayal of Charles Manson. The entire film takes place after the infamous killings, so it’s a courtroom drama to its very core, but it’s one that presents every detail imaginable with theatrical flair and effective clarity. It’s not engaging or fast-paced in the way similar films are, so it might be beneficial to take advantage of the two-part structure. Still, it brings all of the valuable information to the forefront in a way that would even rival a particularly good documentary, and it should be a go-to for anyone hoping to learn more about this corner of history.
1. Charlie Says (2019)
And yet, the film that ultimately comes out on top is American Psycho director Mary Harron’s chronicle of what happened after the trial. As a result of an astronomical coincidence, the death penalty was suspended shortly before Manson and his followers could be sentenced to death. Life with parole, then, was considered the next harshest sentence. As a result, Manson’s young followers (Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins) were granted therapeutic sessions with human rights activist Karlene Faith, who helped them reckon with their actions and realize what had happened to them. It’s the only film on this list to show how the followers of Manson (here portrayed indelibly by an unrecognizable Matt Smith) were victims in their own right, and that their innocence and well-being was also lost on that fateful day, if not long before that. It’s bittersweet and sympathetic in all the right ways. If any of these films are truly worth seeking out, it’s definitely this one.
This was a perilous and largely unrewarding journey, but I’m glad to have made it for the sake of those wishing to explore further. Unfortunately, there were a handful of films that I was unable to track down with any of my sources: The Manson Massacre, The Book of Manson, and The Manson Family. It should also go without saying that, despite my thorough research, there could very well be other films I haven’t yet been made aware of that would qualify for this list. Please leave a comment if you think I missed anything!
How many of these have you seen or heard of? Which one is your favorite, your least favorite, or the most bizarre overall? Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!
Sam is a frequent contributor to Cinemaholics, former co-host of Anyway, That’s All I Got, and currently hosts the weekly Extra Milestone podcast. He’ll watch anything once, but makes no guarantees about whether or not he’ll remember it.