Sunday, February 7, 2016

Manson’s Lost Girls (Asylum Entertainment/Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I wanted to watch the Lifetime “world premiere” movie Manson’s Lost Girls, thinking it would be good clean sleazy fun even though I can’t stand the continued depiction of Charles Manson in books (I recently read a new biography that was one of the last things I ordered from the Quality Paperback Book Club before it merged into the Literary Guild, which is still sending me e-mails and which I have no intention of joining), films, TV shows (he was a major character in the short-lived TV-series Aquarius, a police procedural set in the 1960’s, and indeed that show featured the police as being far more interested in Manson, and far more aware of his activities, than they really were — if they had been he probably wouldn’t have been able to commit the Tate and LaBianca mass murders on which his reputation as a super-criminal and cult leader rest) and other media (the 20-something woman who married him is running a Web site selling Manson memorabilia, including autographs — though, as with the Hollywood stars of the 1930’s, Manson has a whole staff, in his case fellow prisoners at Corcoran, signing “autographs” for him). There’s a cottage industry surrounding Manson largely because the radical Right is fond of using him as a whipping boy against the 1960’s counterculture and “values” in particular — “You see! You see what comes of saying you believe in peace and love? You start killing people!” — and also because Manson seems so unprepossessing as a cult leader, let alone one who could brainwash depressingly ordinary young women to commit particularly brutal murders for him. He was only 5’ 2” tall (though as with most dramatizations Manson’s Lost Girls cast an actor considerably taller and at least somewhat better-looking than the real one; Steve Railsback, who played him in the original Helter Skelter, is the only actor who’s played Manson who’s as small and dorky-looking as the original) and ugly, and however he attracted and kept his followers, physical appeal wasn’t it. Manson’s Lost Girls takes the story from the point of view of Linda Kasabian (Mackenzie Mausy), who hadn’t been part of “The Family” for very long when she was tabbed by Manson to drive the car containing his long-term brainwashed killers to the Tate and LaBianca murder sites (both locations Manson was thoroughly familiar with, by the way — he’d been at the Tate house many times to visit its previous occupant, record producer Terry Melcher, who Manson believed was going to sign him to Columbia Records; and he’d been at the LaBianca house because for a while some of the “Family” lived next door and the LaBiancas had frequently filed complaints against them to the police) because she was the only cult member who had a valid driver’s license (aside from Mary Brunner, who was already in custody on other charges).

Kasabian eventually became the star witness against Manson and his killer “Family,” receiving immunity from first-degree murder charges for her testimony, and an end-of-film credit says she’s now living in Oregon under a different name. She was on the stand for 19 days (that’s what happens when you testify in a trial in which there are five different defendants, each with their own lawyer who has a right to cross you) and didn’t waver. We hear the story through her eyes and Manson (Jeff Ward) becomes, if not a peripheral figure, certainly an odd one: the framing of the story makes clear his total dominance over “The Family” but for the most part he’s off to the side and it’s the girls — Susan Atkins (Eden Brolin, Josh Brolin’s daughter and James Brolin’s granddaughter), Patricia Krenwinkel (Isabel Shill) and Leslie Van Houten (Greer Grammer, Kelsey Grammer’s daughter) — who take center stage as Manson’s enforcers, along with Charles “Tex” Watson (Christian Madsen, son of Michael Madsen and nephew of Virginia Madsen), who as in real life is the hottest stud in Manson’s entourage and was sometimes his designated seducer: Watson would get a woman Manson was interested in recruiting to have sex with him, and once they started an affair she’d be hooked and would be willing to move in with Manson and follow the cult’s rule (never spelled out specifically in the movie) that any woman in the cult was expected at any time to have sex with any man Manson told them to. It’s how he kept bending people to his will — by having a lot of hot, nubile young things around for horny straight celebrities like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys (Stephen Sullivan, who looked like he would have fit right into the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy) whom he wanted to manipulate. (Manson actually got one of his songs on a Beach Boys album — his title for it was “Cease to Exist” but it was released as “Never Learn Not to Love” and Dennis Wilson got the songwriter credit; Manson was less pissed about that than that Dennis changed the line “Cease to exist” to “Cease to resist” — he’d given Dennis permission to tweak the melody but had insisted there be no changes in the lyric — but aside from that and a couple of professionally recorded demo sessions, he never fulfilled his ambition of making it as a professional musician and becoming a rock star.) Manson also assigned his girls to give regular blow jobs to octagenarian George Spahn, at whose Movie Ranch in Chatsworth (built in the 1920’s as an all-purpose Western town for moviemakers to rent as a shooting location) the “Family” hid out after Dennis Wilson finally threw them out of his Pacific Palisades mansion. (One aspect of the story that isn’t mentioned here is that because they were ordered to have sex with any man Manson wanted them to, his “girls” regularly got sexually transmitted infections; Dennis Wilson paid their treatment bills at V.D. clinics and later, when Manson offered his girls to a motorcycle gang leader he was trying to ingratiate himself with, the motorcycle guy said, “Next time I want a case of the clap that takes a year to go away, I’ll let you know”).

Manson’s Lost Girls follows the basic outline of the real case — though in one particular it deviates from the known facts: in this telling of the story (written by Stephen Kronish and Matthew Tabak and directed by a woman, Leslie Libman, who was shown during an interstital segment explaining how she directed the actors in the dance-orgy scene that immediately precedes the Tate murders), after Manson freaks out when one of his male “Family” members has been arrested for the murder of Gary Hinman (Christopher Redman), it’s one of the girls who hits on the idea of committing other murders with the same modus operandi and getting the police to blame them on the Black Panthers so Hinman’s killer, Bobby Beausoleil (Garrett Coffey) — the only member of the Manson entourage who had the talent for a potentially major musical career (after he was convicted Kenneth Anger hired Beausoleil to score one of his films despite the difficulties of working with a composer who was behind bars) — would be released. I was wondering how they would depict the actual murders, and director Libman and her writers neither took the shadowy Val Lewton-style approach I was hoping for nor went all out for gore. Instead they tried to do an in-between depiction, showing enough of the killings to give the modern-day audience the blood ’n’ gore it wants while not showing enough to make it clear just what was going on. (I mentioned Val Lewton and it was only after the movie and its accompanying Beyond the Headlines documentary were over that I realized Lewton was just one degree of separation from the Manson case: his protégé, Mark Robson, directed Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls.) Manson’s Lost Girls was well acted (especially by Brolin and Shill, who duplicated their real-life prototypes’ utter lack of a moral sense and sheer joy in killing) and decently done overall — though, probably due to copyright and licensing issues, no songs by the Beatles were heard in the film and the only two recognizable songs from the 1960’s that were included were the Turtles’ “Happy Together” and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (and the songs supposedly being composed and played by Manson were actually written by one Jamie Floyd) — but the Manson killings are already a tale that’s been told way too often and I quite frankly wouldn’t mind having a respite from it for a while!