Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter -- The True Story of the Manson Murders,” is one of the most horrifying, nightmare-inducing and creepily fascinating books I’ve ever encountered.
The 1974 book is both too much and a definitive encapsulation of the subject matter. Unsurprisingly, it’s the best selling crime book of all time. In the decades removed from the Manson Family, an obsession with True Crime and various serial killer cases (Bundy! Dahmer! Son of Sam!) has burrowed itself into the zeitgeist and never ceased.
As sickening as these stories are, we can’t seem to get enough of them. Charles Manson, in particular, has maintained a cult following as a wild-eyed boogeyman, with T-shirts and other tacky souvenirs sporting his crazy mug.
The movies about Manson tend to be tacky sensationalism, leaning heavily on Method-y histrionics and late ’60s filming cliches. The uniqueness of Mary Herron’s “Charlie Says” is its best selling point and the reason to see it, even if you’ve had your share of these movies: Herron maintains a female point of view, telling the story from the imprisoned perspective of the so-called “Manson girls.”
We meet the three young women who once served Manson: Leslie Van Houten (a haunting turn by Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (a solid Maerianne Rendon) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, the gifted daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgewick), They are incarcerated but remain wholly devoted.
Despite being in separate quarters from the other prisoners and having no contact with the outside world, all they talk about is Charles Manson. As a graduate student (Merritt Wever, excellent) patiently listens to the women as they recall their time on Manson’s “farm” and his plan to create the “helter skelter” race war, the viewer witnesses their unsettling recollections.
Herron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner were responsible for taking Bret Easton Ellis’ wildly controversial 1991 novel “American Psycho” and subverting expectations by heightening the satire, toning down Ellis’ horrific prose and making it a commentary on a wealthy, delusional and very sick yuppie monster.
The 2000 film adaptation, starring Christian Bale as the title character, is surprisingly funny and clever in its rendering of a work that many understandably dismissed as a misogynistic shock novel. Herron and Turner have reunited for “Charlie Says” and, while not as rich an accomplishment as their prior collaboration, their rendering of the oft-told Manson case is worth seeing, even to those overly familiar with this story.
“I still have absolutely no idea who he is, and there’s something about that that is fascinating.”
— IFC Films (@IFCFilms) May 1, 2019
The introductory shot, of a Manson devotee washing blood off of her face in the shower, wisely evokes the opening of Brian De Palma’a “Carrie,” another work about young women being shaped by the abusive tormentors around them.
Once we arrive at the summer of ’69, Manson’s infamous ranch and get a look at Manson, the viewer must make an adjustment: English actor and former-“Doctor Who” Matt Smith is pretty good as Manson, though he’s actually underplaying the part. Not going wacko-bananas with the role is a wise choice, yet, other actors have been far scarier and more persuasive.
All of the actors do great hippie-speak and the ranch sequences don’t feel choreographed. There’s a looseness to the scenes but Herron doesn’t allow anyone to go over the top. If there’s one key element “Charlie Says” has in common with “American Psycho,” it’s how they’re both about women enduring male rituals and role playing.
Whereas most Manson movies are pure exploitation, Herron’s film is serious-minded and only shows as much of the sex and violence as necessary to make a point, before turning away and moving on. While in no way a timid work, there’s an intelligence and filmmaker craft to Herron’s helming of this dreadful story.
Not basing the film on the book by Bugliosi’s but Ed Sander’s “The Family,” Herron and Turner avoid making this a thrill/kill spectacle and focus on the loss of identity.
The emphasis in the Manson group meeting scenes is less on the sex and drugs and more so on his methods of control and how a cult operated by one man can thrive. “Charlie Says” is disturbing but straight forward, devoid of any psychedelic imagery and no overused 60’s tunes, either.
Even with Annabeth Gish and Chase Crawford in the supporting cast, it’s the work of Murray, Rendon and Bacon as the imprisoned murderers that will stay with me.
It’s a shame the film ends when it does, as the story concludes as the prisoners are just beginning the full realization of their crimes. By keeping the focus on the women, Herron and Turner avoid retelling the Manson trial and other well documented incidents, but they also skimp on the giving us a full picture.
Yet, what “Charlie Says” provides (and not just for True Crime fanatics) is a welcome and smart portrait of a story that, for too long, has put its greatest emphasis on one man.