Manson Murders on Film

On the night of August 8, 1969, four members of the Manson Family committed one of America’s most notorious crimes under the direction of their cult leader, Charles Manson. They’d brutally murdered actress Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and the houseguests in her home that night; Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger. It wasn’t their only act of ruthless violence, but the high profiles of the victims captured America’s attention and curiosity, catapulting Manson and his followers into an unparalleled level of infamy. Manson himself became a cultural boogeyman. 

While there’s been no shortage of coverage, speculation, and fictionalized accounts of the Tate murders over the decades, Hollywood seems to be marking its 50th anniversary with renewed interest in America’s most ill-famed cult. Between The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Charlie Says, Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood, season 2 of Netflix’s Mindhunter, and even the recently announced Tate, 2019 bears no shortage of new stories to tell surrounding the Manson Family or its victims. Fifty years and multiple generations removed, many of these films assume familiarity with the facts and take drastic fictional liberties to spin a new story instead. Avoiding any knowledge of the cult or the crimes seems inescapable in 2019, but with such varying reads and loose retellings of the events or key players, that might not exactly be true.

First out of the gate this year in Manson-centric releases was The Haunting of Sharon Tate, a horror-fueled take on the Tate murders by writer/director Daniel Farrands. Fresh off of 2018’s The Amityville Murders, in which Farrands gave a supernatural twist to the DeFeo murders in 1974, Farrands was inspired to apply that formula to the Tate murders. An ill-advised move. Played by Hillary Duff, this iteration of Sharon Tate is haunted by premonitions of her death. Literally haunted. Bathtub faucets spew blood, vivid nightmares of that fateful night recur, spooky voices cut in over the radio, and even ghostly appearances by Charles Manson pop up. That’s correct. In this telling, Charles Manson (Ben Mellish) is the boogeyman personified, only appearing in jump scare capacity. Farrands opens the film with a quote Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream”, an early indicator that reality in this version isn’t reliable. 

Mary Harron’s biographical drama Charlie Says focuses on three of Manson’s followers convicted of murder; Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins. Played by Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, and Marriane Rendon respectively, Charlie Says toggles back and forth between 3 years after the murders under Manson’s sway, where the women are incarcerated, and the events leading up to and during those murders. Matt Smith imbues Charles Manson with just enough charisma to help convey why these girls would follow him, but he quickly becomes pure manic menace. This narrative presents Van Houten as the sympathetic focal point, and frames the events through her perspective. The allure of a new family, no matter how broken. The fear at leaving, even when an escape route offers itself, and reluctantly participating in the murders. 

The film is partly based on Karlene Faith’s The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, a book that chronicles Van Houten’s life and argues that she’s the least culpable and most reformed of Manson’s followers. Faith is played by Merritt Wever in the film, and her character is vital to engendering sympathy toward Van Houten. Because Charlie Says wants to paint Van Houten in a sympathetic light, it also alters or reframes some of the events to ensure audiences will rally behind her. Here, she’s a tragic victim of Charles Manson’s brainwashing. Though Manson’s presence looms large over the events of the film, he’s not featured much. 

The biggest release by far is that of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood. It’s an epic fairy tale about Hollywood’s final years of its Golden Age, set in 1969, through the lens of fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double best pal Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton happens to live on Cielo Drive, right next door to the home Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have recently moved into. Being that the Tate murders shook Los Angeles to the core and marked an end of a chapter in Hollywood, the inclusion of the Manson Family and all those connected isn’t surprising.

What is surprising, though, is Tarantino using his fairy tale to reframe the events through a filter of nostalgia and reverence. Charles Manson (Damon Harrimon) is barely given a minute of screen time, while Tate shines in scene after scene. We follow Tate through mundane activities, like buying a book for her husband or folding clothes while enjoying music. We see her pick up a hitchhiker and become fast friends. Her unflappable warmth, her consistent compulsion to dance to music, and her passion for life is always at the forefront of her character, with or without dialogue. She’s the embodiment of hope. 

Conversely, the sprawling Manson family is painted with desolate, eerie strokes. Brainwashed, malnourished, and foreboding, it’s Cliff that provides the connective tissue between contrasting worlds when he picks up hitchhiking Manson family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and brings her back to her makeshift home at Spahn Ranch. It sets off a butterfly effect, forever altering the chain of events as we know it. 

It’s clear that Tarantino has done extensive research. The personalities and likenesses of the characters can be uncanny to their true-life counterparts. The historical accuracy shows in the small details, like the girls singing Charles Manson’s song “Always Is Always Forever” while dumpster diving for food. Or that Sharon Tate had a dog named Dr. Sapirstein. Much of the way that the Spahn Ranch scene plays out, while very creepy, is steeped in fact. But in his continued streak of revising history, he’s done something many cinematic retellings of the events hadn’t; he celebrates the life of the victims. We barely get to know any of the Manson family members at all, but Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski all feel like fully fleshed out characters. Like people simply living their lives, just as they were.

Damon Harrimon is set portray Charles Manson once more in season 2 of Mindhunter, along with appearances by numerous notorious serial killers. The overall plot, though, will focus on the Atlanta Child Murders of the late ’70s. Meaning that once again, Manson won’t be much of a factor. 

Despite the resurgence of cinematic retellings of the horrific events on August 8, 1969, it’s become clear that the tides have turned on America’s interest in the former boogeyman. Fifty years later, stories centered around him specifically seem to have lost their appeal. What the Haunting of Sharon Tate, Charlie Says, and Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood show is that the cultural fascination with the cult leader has mostly waned as the focus shifts to other key players involved. Whether these films confuse the facts of the crimes or fails to paint a clear picture of who Manson was as a criminal doesn’t matter in the end, because he’s had fifty years-worth of analysis, speculation, and consideration. The research is there for the curious, but it’s time to give others a voice. Between Tarantino’s sentimental revision of the Tate murders and the recently announced Tate, touted to be a portrait of the actress’s life, it seems resurgent obsession with the Tate murders is shifting in a new, welcome direction. Even if it’s hit a few stumbling blocks along the way.

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