Over the last half century, one villain has loomed large over Hollywood. The gruesome murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers in the summer of 1969 have filled countless films and documentaries about stardom and the debaucheries of the 1960s. But his malign influence extends far beyond the screen. Aside from murdering eight people, Manson and his disciples – the Family – have been blamed for wiping out the counterculture, free love, communes and hippies.
Three new films are making fresh attempts to reckon with “the symbol of animalism and evil”, as Rolling Stone magazine called him. The biggest is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, about to premiere at the Cannes film festival. Set in Los Angeles during the Manson era, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a fading TV western star and Brad Pitt as his stunt double, both attempting to make the leap to the big screen. Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate – the actor and wife of director Roman Polanski – who was brutally murdered by the Family. Manson, a background figure in the film, is played by Damon Herriman.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate, meanwhile, is a sordid fiction starring singer Hilary Duff, in which Tate dreams of being stalked by a man called Charlie and has premonitions of her own murder. Much more rewarding is Charlie Says, directed by Mary Harron, whose credits include American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol. Her film tells the post-trial story of three convicted Manson followers – Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins – who were first sentenced to death, but then imprisoned for life.
Charlie Says, which explores the trio’s participation in a rehab project at the California Institution for Women, is the first film to examine the indoctrination of Manson’s female devotees. “I wanted to address why this happened,” says Harron. “How did these sane, normal young women and men end up doing these terrible things? This was an era of change. If you were a young person, you thought all existing things as we knew them were about to end.” As for the Family, she says, they were on a collision course with reality and justice: “If you took acid every day and were lectured by a megalomaniac, you were about to face some serious consequences.”
The events that would give Charles Milles Manson, who died in prison in 2017, the fame he craved are well documented. On 8 August 1969, four members of the Family visited the home of film director Roman Polanski where they killed Tate, who was pregnant, as well as three of her friends and an 18-year-old student who was visiting the property’s caretaker. At the time, Polanski was in London. As the killers left, one used Tate’s blood to write “pig” on the front door.
The next day, Manson and six of his followers randomly entered the home of business executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. The couple were bound and repeatedly stabbed. One member of the Family carved “WAR” on Leno’s abdomen. Another wrote “Rise” and “Death to pigs” on the walls, and “Healter (sic) Skelter” on the fridge door in blood.
In Charlie Says, Manson is played by former Doctor Who Matt Smith. He calls his character “a master manipulator of young, vulnerable women. I was interested in how that power was used – and contributed to his fall. He was emotionally quite intelligent in his manipulation of people through power and sex. His failure as a musician was the catalyst for a lot of his downfall.”
The wildest scene in Charlie Says is its orgy, when we see Smith stop everything to deliver a speech about the importance of oral sex. “The hardest part about that scene,” Harron recently told the New Yorker magazine, “was finding enough extras willing to get naked.”
Harron says her film is partly a study of institutionalised behaviour. “Manson had grown up in care since the age of 12 and had a terribly loveless childhood. He was not all-powerful or Jesus, but he had enough drugs and manipulation to get what he wanted.”
And what this semi-literate, damaged young criminal wanted – and managed to achieve – was to reinvent himself as an authority figure to impressionable youngsters. Leslie Van Houten was 19 when she joined the Family. In prison, she became a model prisoner who has expressed remorse for her actions. The director John Waters has campaigned for her parole. Charlie Says makes no such attempt at activism. “I wanted to be as fair and empathetic as possible to everyone involved,” says Harron. “But this is not a work of advocacy or trying to get anybody out of prison.”
In 1969, any notion that the reporting of the Manson murders would be characterised by restraint quickly fell away. Manson was arrested four months after the murders and the trial was a media spectacle that lasted over a year. Anonymous press accounts said Polanski and Tate were part of a Hollywood scene that engaged in orgies and acts of sadism. The appalling cruelty of the killers and their links to the film and music industries abruptly ended the city’s Age of Aquarius. Wealthy residents hired bodyguards and cloistered themselves in compounds.
“As the summer of 1969 lengthened,” recalled novelist Robert Stone in his 60s memoir Prime Green, “there was a whole lot of shaving going on in Los Angeles. Good-humoured tolerance of the neo-bohemian scene was suspended.”
In fact, the film industry’s long obsession with Manson-ology began almost as soon as the crime scenes were cleared. In the aftermath of the killings, there was a spate horror films with salacious titles and plots that echoed the murders: I Drink Your Blood, The Love Thrill Murders, The Last House on the Left and Terror on the Beach.
The first adaptation of Manson’s life was a TV special called Helter Skelter, broadcast by CBS in 1976 and based on a book co-authored by Manson’s prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Helter Skelter covered the Tate and LaBianca murders before turning into a court procedural. Steve Railsback played Manson not as a symbol of late-60s hysteria, but as a violent misfit who relied on petty crime and the trafficking of women to survive. His portrayal of Manson is the least self-conscious yet most disturbing of any on screen. Helter Skelter is also the product of an era in which Hollywood treated long-haired men as savages who endangered the fabric of American life.
For research, Railsback listened to recordings of Manson and sat in a closet for 45 minutes each day. “I don’t know if it helped,” he says. “But I didn’t want to meet him since I didn’t want him to manipulate me. He was an awful human being. People asked me if I ended up in psychiatry because of playing him. ”
Helter Skelter was remade in 2004 as a three-hour TV film. This was an origins story starring Jeremy Davies, who played the killer as a religious deity who quoted the Beatles, the Book of Revelation and urged his followers to begin a race war called Helter Skelter. “I was determined to make the murder sequences as brutal as I could and push the network’s boundaries,” says director John Gray. “I wanted to show how cowardly and brutal the murders were. You have to remember that a lot of people were not even alive when these happened.”
Over the years, several directors have made films about miscellaneous aspects of Manson’s life. The Manson Family, released in 1997, took a lo-fi approach. Director Jim Van Bebber says his $400,000 film was released partly as an indictment of the Manson industry. “I was tired of seeing Manson as the bogeyman of our generation, and with the constant fascination with Sharon Tate,” he says. “If she and the people at Cielo Drive weren’t murdered, you would not be calling me.”
The gravitational pull of Manson-ology can also be attributed to the fact that the murders occurred in wealthy neighbourhoods that were home to LA’s creatives, in particular its film-makers. Jeffrey Melnick, author of Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Famous Family, believes this may be why the story is so frequently revisited. “On the part of Hollywood, there is a cultural repetition compulsion,” says Melnick, who thinks the Manson story became “a way of saying that a lot of that 60s stuff went too far. The murders lend themselves to a weird kind of history that tries to demonstrate that we let the hippies into our house, and let the freaks dance with us, but it didn’t end well.”
One of the most committed attempts at a Manson biopic began in 1989 when a young writer called Trent Harris finished a script called Manson!, later renamed Summer of Love. The main role was offered to Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn, Brad Davis, Eric Roberts and Henry Rollins. All said no – there was a mindset that playing the part could be career-ending. “I tried a million different actors,” says producer Alan Sacks, who eventually abandoned the project.
As well as providing an epilogue to her own memories, one of the driving forces behind Charlie Says was Mary Harron’s aim to reappraise the sexual politics of the 1960s for the #MeToo era. The film-maker was just a teenager when the murders occurred. “I spent some time in LA in the sixties when my father was an actor living there. I remember hearing about the murders.”
She says she spent years trying to get Charlie Says made: “I think the attention on Quentin’s film allowed me to get mine into production. In some ways, the social context of how we understand Manson’s female followers is even more important today. I was thinking, ‘We have to make this film now.’”