I recently received a copy of new film “House of Manson” (note: DVD titled “Manson” in UK), and was excited to FINALLY see this 2014 horror film. I knew it had been creating a significant buzz on the film festival and horror convention circuit. In particular, I wanted to support several stars of indie horror including Brandon Slagle (pictured at left holding his film, writer/director of such films as Truth or Dare, The Black Dahlia Haunting), Tristan Risk (American Mary, ABCs of Death 2), and Devanny Pinn (Truth or Dare, The Black Dahlia Haunting).
While waiting to see this film, I’d seen the amazing trailer and read some early reviews and realized, much to my delight, that Slagle had crafted a true-crime docudrama grounded in realism. Having now seen the film, I can 100% attest that he has accomplished this without sensationalizing or elaborating on the basic storyline.
The film opens with the Manson family’s arrest on the ranch and Charlie’s subsequent discussion with attorney Ronald Hughes, played by Chriss Anglin, who is considering representing him is the “frame” of the story. This gives the film a simple method for Charlie to relate his life’s story to the attorney from his early years, growing up, years in prison, and ultimately the events of “Healter Skelter” (as the killers misspelled it).
Having read Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, and seen numerous documentaries, this film is absolutely grounded in facts and reality. Never boring and never glamorizing the “family,” it faithfully portrays one of the more shocking killing sprees in American history. I watched some additional documentaries right after watching the film and this further confirmed my memory of facts and verified some of the finer points of the narrative I had either missed or forgotten (such as the person who taught Charlie the guitar, his connection to a member of the Beach Boys, Abigail Foster’s final words, etc.).
When the series of murderous rampage nights arrive, the mood is set and you feel the emotional and visceral carnage deeply. In particular that of Sharon Tate, here played wonderfully by Suzi Lorraine, who was only a month from giving birth. Her begging for her baby is every bit as horrific as you would imagine. Tristan Risk has a smaller role here as Abigail Foster, but as always she is spectacular.
The final moments, true to life/death, are bloody and emotional. I knew what was coming, but seeing the reenactment in such accurate, visceral detail really hit me. Much more so than a “typical” horror film. Or if this film had been in less capable hands.
And I have to call out the always excellent unhinged performance of Devanny Pinn as Susan Atkins. Between “Truth or Dare” and “The Black Dahlia Haunting,” I knew Pinn was versatile and could do crazy and emotional. She draws on both in this performance which is a slow burn to an explosive eruption of crazy to a smoldering afterglow of acceptance of what they’d done. Especially in her post-arrest interrogations. Pinn perfectly captures the arc of the family members’ psychotic journey.
And, even though this is technically a horror film, it is absolutely a true-crime drama not done in any way to downplay what happened or justify it. That’s the mark of a great docudrama and Brandon Slagle should be supremely proud of his film. The writing and direction is solid, the music and editing, all of it. In fact, it also has an outstanding cast of supporting actors. Given the budgets of indie films, we’ve all seen the surrounding actors who, lets be honest, aren’t always on the same level as the main cast.
This is not the case here. Everyone from start to finish clearly took the heart a mantra to play this accurate to the time period and the seriousness of the subject matter. In particular, I want to point out the great performance by Chriss Anglin as Ronald Hughes. As the film was hung on the scenese between Charlie and Ronald, it was critical the two actors be on the same playing field. It’s a low-key performance, but ramps up at the end in ways a lesser actor wouldn’t have handled in my opinion.
Which leads me last, but definitely not least, to Ryan Kiser. Charged with embodying one of the 20th century’s most notorious/infamous people, how did he do? I had seen Kiser as the villain in Jessica Cameron’s excellent bloody horror film “Truth or Dare” and he was magnetic. A scene-stealer with manic energy and power. So when I heard Brandon Slagle was making “House of Manson” and cast Kiser as Charlie, I knew immediately this was as perfect a casting if ever I had heard of it. And it is. Kiser could have gone in a lot of directions with this role, even veering towards an almost Joker-esque villain. But, as with everything/everyone else in this film, Kiser fully embodies a well-balanced, understated, depiction of this unbalanced maniac.
From a sympathetic story of his upbringing and years in prison, to his drive to find a path to rock star status and embracing a free love commune life to devolving into a manipulative cult leader trying to bring about an apocalyptic race war: Kiser handles every facet/nuance perfectly. Never over-the-top or cartoonish, Kiser keeps the performance grounded in realism which fully illustrates the culmination of events that played out over multiple nights in the summer of 1969. I knew he would be great, but that’s an understatement as Kiser does a simply amazing job as Charlie.
Everyone involved should be very proud of this film. It’s a great film, a great horror film and a great true-crime docudrama. In particular, I want to congratulate Brandon Slagle on creating such a great film. He’s done plenty of other great work, but I hope he is aware of what an amazing film he’s made and he should be deservedly very proud of it.
See it and own it!
Amazon UK has it to order now. Note that you will need a DVD or Blu-ray player modified to be region-free and convert PAL to NTSC. I HIGHLY recommend this one: Samsung BD-H5900 Upgraded Wi-Fi Multi Region Zone Free Blu Ray DVD Player – PAL/NTSC 10
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Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
There are plenty of documentaries and early interviews about this crime spree.
And the Manson family story isn’t over! Check out this long, but fascinating article. Were there more murders detailed in these recordings? Did the known murders really happen the way we think they did? How involved was Charlie?