Plenty of films and television shows have been made about Charles Manson and his followersfor whom hatred certainly was a family valuebut The Manson Family might be the first one that sometimes feels like it was made by the Manson Family itself. Writer-director Jim Van Bebber wallows so mercilessly in sleaze, sex, sin, and degradation that after watching The Manson Family, audiences are liable to feel like they've just spent a week and a half rolling around in the mud at Spahn Ranch. It's the kind of film detectives of the future might expect to find in the crawlspaces of serial killers alongside severed limbs.
A pet project more than a decade in the making, The Manson Family adopts the style of a scratchy, low-budget '70s drive-in movie to tell the story of the clan whose rise to notoriety epitomized the underside of the '60s counterculture. The film's aesthetic is pure grindhouse Grand Guignol, complete with gratuitous sex, druggy depravity, gutter surrealism, and a climactic orgy of bloodshed and carnage explicit enough to satisfy the most jaded Fangoria subscriber. Van Bebber's sensibility, all dirty '70s vibe and jacked-up super-sleaze, matches the sordidness of his subject matter, amplifying the film's unpleasantness to near-historic proportions.
But because Van Bebber doesn't have anything incisive or original to say about one of America's most overexposed bogeymen, The Manson Family never transcends mere gross-out queasiness. It's style for the sake of style, a psychedelic freakfest grooving furiously but pointlessly on its own nastiness. Like the film's subject, The Manson Family's freaky vision seems destined to ensnare a few wayward souls into its intense cult and repulse pretty much everyone else.