Film Review: CHARLIE SAYS
Written by: Victoria Alexander | May 2nd, 2019
I do not believe the public will ever know what the reason was behind the Tate-La Bianca murders committed by Tex Watson, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins and ordered by Charles Manson.
From all I have read about scrappy 5’ 2” Charles Manson, he had a lot of fury towards people who did not recognize his talents and dismissed him as a dirty, ex-con hippie. So Manson decides to get revenge on Terry Melcher by causing havoc at a house the music producer had owned. Manson’s select “family members” just went where they were told. Yeah, killing everyone in the house would show Melcher he crossed the wrong people.
Supposedly, Manson did not know who was occupying the house that evening. This is the gospel according Vincent Bugliosi: a random house was chosen without knowing who was there.
Manson genius was having a harem of willing young girls to do his killing.
CHARLIE SAYS screenwriter Guinevere Turner credits Ed Sanders’ 1971 book The Family as her principal source. In late 1964, Sanders founded The Fugs with Tuli Kupferberg, a counterculture group heralded in the 60s and 70s. As the earliest book on The Family, and Sanders having a lot of “underground” contacts, it is likely as accurate as it could be with rumors offered for others to uncover. The acknowledged definitive book on Manson is HELTER SKELTER: THE TRUE STORY OF THE MANSON MURDERS by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. We would expect that prosecutor Bugliosi had much more information and facts regarding the events and specifically, the why.
“This residence – 10050 Cielo Drive – where Tate and Polanski now lived, came to symbolise the establishment to Charles Manson, particularly the establishment’s rejection of him,” said Bugliosi.
So why didn’t Manson order his “family” to just burn down the house?
Did Manson know who was renting 10050 Cielo Drive? He knew Terry Melcher had moved out. Did Manson come face-to-face with actress Sharon Tate when he went looking for Melcher at the house?
Did Manson think orchestrating a grisly celebrity massacre would put an ugly face on the Hollywood elite that had rejected him?
It’s a theory that Manson chose that house to stage a copycat murder to get a Family member, Bobby Beausoleil, who was just arrested for a murder Manson ordered, released from jail. But Beausoleil did not kill anyone famous so no one would link the murders together.
No theory advanced satisfies me. Were they all random victims? There was a reason Manson chose the occupants of 10050 Cielo Drive and the LaBianca house. Not a good reason, but Manson had some scores to settle.
Since Manson was a murderous psychopath and his followers were brainwashed into blind obedience, the idea that drugs and money were at play has been rejected. I do not think the young women knew the real reason. They just did what Charlie told them to do.
The police were not looking at Manson for the murders until Susan Atkins bragged about being a murderer to her cellmate Virginia Graham. Graham shared a dorm room with Atkins at the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in the fall of 1969. “She told me this thing with great glee,” said Graham. “I asked her what she was in for,” said Graham. “I thought she would say possession of marijuana. She said murder. The next day or day after that is when she plopped herself down on the cot and started talking about murders up in Benedict Canyon.”
“She was somewhat proud,” added Graham. “She believed by killing these people that she was sending them to another world and that you really had to love them to kill them.”
Could such a vicious, blood-letting murder have been their first? No matter how many times authorities have looked, no other bodies have been uncovered around The Family’s compound, Spahn Ranch. By all accounts, it is a rather heinous first killing.
CHARLIE SAYS looks at the three women three years after they were sentenced to death.
Director Mary Herron and screenwriter collaborator Guinevere Turner tell the story of Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), a criminologist who founded the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project. Faith was conducting a voluntary rehabilitative teaching program at the California Institution for Women and its warden, Virginia Carlson (Annabeth Gish), suggested Faith conduct private sessions with the three “Manson Women.” Savage killers Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) are imprisoned in the Special Security Unit with their own cells, away from the general inmate population.
When Faith meets them, they are still enthralled to the Manson psychobabble. All they have been through has not turned them into monsters. Faith accepts the widely held belief the young women were “brainwashed” by Manson and had no individual moral responsibility for their actions. Her mission is to get Leslie, Patricia and Susan to start thinking for themselves.
The path to Cielo Drive begins when wide-eyed Leslie is hitchhiking and given a ride to Spahn Ranch. A group of girls surround her, hug her and warmly welcome her as a sister. She is freely accepted and not judged by social status or beauty. The girls whisper anxiously about Charlie Manson (Matt Smith), a man who has been divinely sent to teach them about love and acceptance.
Manson, as portrayed here, is very kind and understands that young women hate their bodies and feel inadequate. He liberates them by telling them they are beautiful. Everything is done with love and sharing. It’s also about drugs, taking LSD and having sex. The girls are not used as prostitutes by Charlie, instead they happily go “dumpster diving” for day old food. He did not exploit them or use them as sex-pawns.
There are no punishments, no rules (except men eat first), no forced sexual contacts, starvation, or other practices typically used by cults. Does heavy LSD use make brainwashing easier? Was Charlie’s rants really mind games or indoctrination?
It has never been established that Manson was a big-time drug dealer but there was plenty of drugs around. One day, after realizing his dream to become as famous as the Beatles had been shattered, Charlie gets it into his head that the Beatles’ White Album is giving him secret messages to start a race war. It will be called “Helter Skelter.”
As the newest recruit, Leslie has questions about Charlie’s motives, but he accepts her without judgment, so she must do the same. Even when a member of a motorcycle gang offers to take her away, she proves her devotion by staying with Charlie. That was her test.
Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson’s (James Trevena-Brown) involvement with The Family is briefly shown. It is Wilson who arranges for Charlie to audition for music producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian). When Melcher fails to sign Manson to a recording contract, Manson destroys his guitar and begins to manufacture a scenario for the race war. He will be the architect. So did Melcher’s disregard for Manson’s talent initiate the bloodshed of the Tate-LaBianca murders?
The extraordinary team of Herron and Turner, responsible for the dazzling AMERICAN PSYCHO, which turned Patrick Bateman into an anti-Rhett Butler cinematic icon, have great sympathy for the young women who were drugged and hoodwinked into a frenzied killing spree. Herron and Turner never look deeper into the lives of these women and their relationship with each other at the Ranch. How did their infamy change them?
Smith is dynamic and seductive, something it is hard for me to believe about Manson. Smith can’t help himself, especially when he is surrounded by young girls.
Considering the source material, I am disappointed that Herron did not delve into the psychosexual dynamics at play and the harsher reality of what those three young women were subjected to by voluntarily joining Manson’s Family. Perhaps the tone would have been different altogether had we seen “Sexy Sadie” cartwheeling through prison and being sexually aggressive. We would have had less sympathy for them if we had seen the murders, the aftermath bragging, and the defiant posturing.
The New Yorker ran an article, Keeping Faith with the Manson Women, by Jeffrey Melnick (August 1, 2018), about CHARLIE SAYS and principally the work of Karlene Faith, who wrote a book, “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten.” I was shocked to read that the “Manson girls” had many important guests as teachers.
This part of the article is most informative regarding how CHARLIE SAYS is structured: “According to Faith’s account, the volunteers were especially affected by the work they did in the Special Security Unit with Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten. Here they met “three young, attractive, intelligent and unexpectedly endearing and vulnerable women,” who appear to have thrown themselves into their studies with great energy. Faith and the others were moved, especially, by the talent that the women displayed in handicrafts and singing (apparently they sang a beautiful, close-harmony version of Buck Owens’s “Cryin’ Time”).” https://www.newyorker.com/cult