If you fol­lowed under­ground film­mak­ing late 1980’s/early 1990’s  — par­tic­u­lar­ly that of the hor­ror vari­ety — you prob­a­bly heard about “Charlie’s Family,” the film that would even­tu­al­ly become The Manson Family. It was the work of young actor/writer/director/editor/fx man Jim Van Bebber, who had recent­ly earned noto­ri­ety in cult cir­cles for his grind­house gang epic Deadbeat At Dawn.

Van Bebber set out to make his own per­son­al­ized, no-bull­shit, no mer­cy take on the Manson mythos but the film got stuck in lim­bo due to lack of fund­ing and busi­ness deals con­stant­ly falling through. Scenesters moved from excite­ment to impa­tience to indif­fer­ence as year after year passed with­out a for­mal release of the film. Still, he kept shoot­ing it in a piece­meal fash­ion between 1988 and 1997, final­ly wrap­ping post pro­duc­tion — on his own terms, natch — in 2003.

The results were worth the wait, as this is a Manson movie like no oth­er. First off, Manson (Marcelo Games) isn’t the main fig­ure of the tale — he’s more of a cat­a­lyst. The real prime movers are his most fer­vent fol­low­ers — Tex (Marc Pitman), Sadie (Maureen Allisse), Patty (Leslie Orr), Bobby (Van Bebber) and Leslie (Amy Yates). Each of the sup­posed dis­ci­ples is real­ly just enjoy­ing play­ing out pow­er games and liv­ing at the edge of their san­i­ty, using Manson’s ‘teach­ings’ as an excuse to plunge into an abyss of drugs, sex, and ulti­mate­ly, some of the most vicious mur­ders in record­ed his­to­ry.

The tale of how the fol­low­ers’ mad­ness boiled over, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Tate and LaBianca mur­ders, forms the nar­ra­tive back­bone of The Manson Family. However, Van Bebber uti­lizes a cut-up nar­ra­tive style, weav­ing in a par­al­lel sto­ry­line of how a group of Manson-influ­enced junkie kids plot to mur­der a news­man who angers them by doing a mod­ern Manson expose. The two sto­ry lines are given a link — and a third lay­er of com­men­tary on the events — via mod­ern-day rec­ol­lec­tions from the Manson dis­ci­ples from their pris­on cells, all con­tra­dict­ing each oth­er as they reshape events to fit their van­tage point.

The end result is as much as sen­so­ry over­load expe­ri­ence as it is a nar­ra­tive film. Van Bebber effec­tive­ly uti­lizes the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry visu­al style (per­fect­ly cap­tured by producer/d.p. Mike King) and ellip­ti­cal edit­ing style of movies from the era he por­trays — name­ly Easy Rider, Performance and The Last Movie - to echo the con­trast­ing per­spec­tives of char­ac­ters and their jan­gled nerves. He also uses a com­plex sound mix that adds every pos­si­ble back­ground ele­ment from Manson songs to ani­mal nois­es to Jim Jones speech­es to get under the viewer’s skin.

And Van Bebber doesn’t shy away from the extreme con­tent of his cho­sen sto­ry — the rit­u­al­is­tic drug orgies and the hor­ri­fy­ing mur­ders are all depict­ed in a vivid style. The cli­mac­tic depic­tions of the Tate and LaBianca mas­sacres are amongst the most gut-wrench­ing depic­tions ever filmed of any mur­der and are like­ly to make even the hardi­est hor­ror afi­cionado squirm.  That said, despite the very NC-17 lev­els of sex and vio­lence on dis­play here, it nev­er feels gra­tu­itous — it just feels hon­est. Van Bebber teeters on the edge (a neces­si­ty in telling this sto­ry, at least to the­se eyes) but nev­er falls off.

Better yet, unlike oth­er film­mak­ers who explore this mate­ri­al, Van Bebber knows when to quit. It’s telling of his skill and his respect for the mate­ri­al that he uses fast cuts to make you think you see more than you actu­al­ly do dur­ing the bru­tal moments and man­ages to sug­gest the very worst inci­dents with­out show­ing them in detail (exam­ple: a hor­ri­fy­ing gang rape is sug­gest­ed entire­ly through a bar­rage of extreme close-ups inter­spersed with an occa­sion­al shot from the victim’s p.o.v.). He also finds moments of odd poignan­cy between the hor­rors — the sequence of the fatal­ly wound­ed Abigail Folger try­ing to stag­ger away from the mur­der site is as heart­break­ing as it is stom­ach-churn­ing.

It’s also worth not­ing that the actors match Van Bebber in the com­mit­ment depart­ment.  Games does an impres­sive Manson, con­vinc­ing in how he han­dles both the play­ful and vicious sides of the char­ac­ter, and Allisse and Orr are both fright­en­ing­ly intense as two of the key female family mem­bers.  Their the­atri­cal take on their char­ac­ters some­times threat­ens to go too far but their con­vic­tion car­ries them through — a mono­logue that Orr does about the “mis­sion” of the Manson fam­i­ly to Tex is unfor­get­table.  Van Bebber him­self impress­es as Bobby, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a grim and dif­fi­cult scene where he has to mur­der Gary Hinman.  That said, the best work might come from Pitman as Tex, who func­tions as the audience’s entry into Manson’s sor­did world.  He tack­les Tex’s jour­ney from oppor­tunis­tic skep­tic to the most bru­tal of Manson’s killers with an unin­hib­it­ed yet thor­ough­ly believ­able inten­si­ty.

One word of warn­ing, though — keep in mind that The Manson Family is not a per­fect film. Despite an impres­sive over­all sense of detail, some rough edges show through: for instance, the pho­ny-look­ing mus­tache Van Bebber wears in the lat­ter-day footage as Bobby is dis­tract­ing. The film’s biggest prob­lem is that the mod­ern-day plot­line doesn’t ful­ly work: it’s great in the­o­ry but, when con­trast­ed with the lived-in per­for­mances and fever­ish inten­si­ty of the Manson-era stuff, it feels too self-con­scious and pales in com­par­ison.  As a result, the mod­ern finale feels anti­cli­mat­ic in com­par­ison to the Manson fam­i­ly mur­der sce­nes it fol­lows.

However, The Manson Family remains a stun­ning, impor­tant piece of work despite the­se minor mis­steps. When one con­sid­ers the piece-meal nature of its cre­ation, it’s amaz­ing just how focused and inci­sive it real­ly is. This is no mere grind­house work — it com­ments with star­tling accu­ra­cy about how peo­ple can shift blame to jus­ti­fy their worst actions and how the media can per­pet­u­ate ugly myths that not only obscure the truth but send soci­ety in the wrong direc­tion. Simply put, any­one with an inter­est in mod­ern under­ground film­mak­ing or the sto­ry of Charles Manson needs to see The Manson Family.

TMF Trailer 2013 RedBand from Severin Films on Vimeo.