Monday, February 18, 2019

The Manson Family on Film and Television’ (2018)

Original review in Diabolique Magazine.



Closing in on nearly fifty years after the event, the dark enigma of Charles Manson (1934 – 2017) and the horror that was the Tate-LaBianca murders continue to fascinate and haunt us in a way that very few crimes before or since have. Over the nights of August the 8th and 9th, 1969, Manson managed to reach out and terrify the world by sending a selection of his acid-fuelled young (and mostly female) followers on a murderous rampage through Los Angeles, a spree that would ultimately leave seven people dead, including a pregnant Sharon Tate, the 26-year-old actress wife of film director Roman Polanski (who may very well have ended up among the victims, had he not been over in the UK at the time). Of course, the combined death toll attributed to Manson and his Family was much higher than seven, and included musician Gary Hinman, lawyer Ronald Hughes, Spahn Movie Ranch hand and Hollywood stuntman Donald "Shorty" Shea, and possibly many others.

I have long held a strange fascination with the Manson case, as I also have with the November 22nd, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, two crimes which bookended the decade of the pop-sixties, a contradictory one played up as a time of ‘peace and love’, yet seeing record increases in racial violence, psychopathy and random acts of senseless killing. Not to mention a pointless war in South East Asia that was being played out nightly on television sets across American living rooms. The Tate-LaBianca killings, along with the stabbing murder of black concertgoer Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels at the Altamont rock festival in San Francisco on December 6th, 1969, brought the decade to a screaming halt.

My own first exposure to Manson was, appropriately enough, a cinematic one. I was only five years old at the time the events took place, so while I may have heard his name being mentioned on the news or by older family members, my first conscious introduction to Charles Manson was the screening of the two-part telemovie Helter Skelter (1976/USA), which I first saw at the age of thirteen, probably the perfect age for the film and its story to have maximum impact on my impressionable mind. In the lead-up to the broadcast, I started learning a few things about Manson and the murders, from TV reports and newspaper articles hyping the mini-series, as well as from exaggerated and misinformed schoolyard chatter.

But you didn’t need to exaggerate anything in this case – the crime and the facts surrounding it, not to mention the news footage and images of Manson and his perpetrators, spoke for themselves. So by the time Helter Skelter aired in Australia, I was primed and already terrified out of my wits by the story. After the first part of the telemovie had aired, which was highlighted by a galvanising performance by Steve Railsback as Charles Manson, I slept with the bedroom door opened and the hallway light turned on, for the first time in years. Of course, I couldn’t wait for the second part to air the following night.


Written by Germany-based screenwriter and author Ian Cooper, The Manson Family on Film and Television (McFarland, 2019, 213 pages) is a much-welcome book-length examination of the films, television shows and TV movies which were either based on or inspired/influenced by the Manson killings and the fear and hysteria which they generated. While Helter Skelter may be one of the better and more widely-publicised adaptations of the case (it was based on the famous best-selling book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry), it was certainly not the first. The sensationalism and cocktail of lurid ingredients which surrounded the Manson murders provided the perfect fodder for exploitation filmmakers. They were quick to capitalise on the tragedy. Existing films were hastily retitled and rushed into cinemas and drive-ins with suitably tasteless advertising campaigns, such as Robert Thom's Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1959), which reappeared post-Manson as Cult of the Damned, while cameras started rolling on new films while the newspaper ink was still wet.

Two of the earliest cinematic exploitations of the Manson killings were Frank Howard's The Other Side of Madness (1971) and The Manson Massacre (1971). The former is an interesting and effectively surreal, almost arty black & white gem that utilizes some of Charlie's original music and was partially filmed at the infamous Spahn Ranch, the old western movie location which the Manson Family used as a hideout and sanctuary. The Other Side of Madness was later re-released as The Helter Skelter Murders which is the title it remains best known under. Little is known about Kentucky Jones, the mysterious name credited as director on The Manson Massacre (aka The Cult), a film which was presumed lost for many years until a German-dubbed print was discovered in the early 2000s.


Cooper puts forth the belief that Kentucky Jones was a pseudonym for the notorious sexploitation filmmaker Roberta Findlay, though other rumours have invariably suggested the film was directed by Lee Frost, veteran Albert Zugsmith and even members of the Manson Family itself (the later highly unlikely but makes for a good urban myth). The Manson Massacre is a quintessential piece of early-70s' scuzz, dripping with sleaze and jam-packed with topless hippie chicks and psychedelia-drenched violence.

The film takes great liberties with the facts behind the case, but does contain an interesting structure, with frequent black & white flashbacks filling us in on the background of Manson's girls, along with their first meeting with the Messiah (one of the girls falls for Charlie when he helps her steal a vibrator which her horrified father refuses to buy for her!). Other flashbacks depict Manson sleeping with his mother (played by the buxotic Russ Meyer gal Uschi Digart) and being gang raped in the showers by a group of fellow inmates during his subsequent prison sentence.


The author has an interesting take on some of the films that are discussed in The Manson Family on Film and Television, such as Tobe Hooper's seminal masterwork The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which Cooper asserts is like a reverse Manson, in which the young band of hippies are the ones who are terrorized and slaughtered at the hands of a demented (and literal) family of killers who are shunned and separated from society. Another example is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1978), in which the Colonel Kurtz character (played by Marlon Brando) is cast as the Manson figure, a dropout from his own military society who has lost his mind and is lording over his  "family" of natives and army deserters deep in the jungles of Vietnam.

Cooper also includes some of the many documentaries and true crime TV shows and interviews that have been devoted to Manson over the years. The highlight of which would still have to be the devastating and Oscar-nominated Manson (1973), along with many of the low-budget horror flicks that gave off a clear Manson vibe like David Durston's incredibly sleazy I Drink Your Blood (1970), the Robert Quarry vampire vehicle The Deathmaster (1972), and Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

It's also great to see Cooper touch on Jeff Lieberman's classic psychedelic psycho-shocker Blue Sunshine (1977), which centres on a group of young adults who, as experimental counter-culture college students a decade earlier, took a batch of bad acid which is now catching-up with them, causing them to lose their hair and descend into murderous psychosis.

The theme of crazed killers on a bum trip, along with the visual of bald young women with craziness in their eyes, certainly brings forth some Manson-esque connotations. When I interviewed writer/director Lieberman about it a couple of years ago, he told me that he had no thought of Manson during the film's conception and production. Still, it's a perfect example of how Manson managed to permeate the subconscious, if not in the filmmaker then in the viewer.

Episodic television shows, which featured Manson-esque characters and situations, are not ignored in Cooper's book, either. Along with the recent David Duchovny-led series Aquarius (2015 – 2016), Cooper covers classic TV shows which riffed on Manson, like "A Coven of Killers," a 1975 episode of the American cop series S.W.A.T., which guest-starred Sal Mineo as the cult-like leader of a group of alienated youths out to exact revenge against the people who put him behind bars. Tragically, Mineo himself was viciously murdered not long after this episode aired, stabbed to death by a drifter named Lionel Ray Williams. One notable admission from the book, and one of my own favourite Manson-inspired TV episodes, is "Bloodbath" from the second (1976) season of Starsky & Hutch. Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser, who also directed), is kidnapped by the crazed followers of a cult leader named Simon Marcus, who blame Starsky for his imprisonment on a string of murder charges.

The Manson vibe of Simon Marcus, played by the memorably-named Aesop Aquarian, is clearly apparent not just in the influence which he wields over his young followers, but in his physical appearance, which includes long hair, a beard, and an upside-down cross engraved on his forehead (in place of Charlie's notorious swastika). With Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) set to recapture the Manson hysteria and bring it back to our screens in time for the 50th anniversary of the events, it seems as if the public fascination with all things Helter Skelter is not about to dissipate anytime soon, making Ian Cooper's book a timely publication. Entertaining, knowledgeably-written and illustrated throughout with many B&W photos, poster art and ad mats, The Manson Family on Film and Television is a book that should appeal to both true crime and cult cinema fans and would look equally at home sitting on the bookshelf of either.




Thanks J-dog!



36 comments:

Peter said...

Death Master is available on YouTube. It's divided into six or seven parts, but it's a good quality transfer and pretty fun to watch

ColScott said...

I hope you got that book comped

Logan said...

🗣RONALD🗣HUGHES🗣IS🗣NOT🗣A🗣FAMILY🗣VICTIM! (louder for the people in the back!)

Logan said...

That being said, I would love to read this book. I am no expert on exploitation cinema, but I do love its many varieties. Also, I would love to see The Manson Massacre. The description of vibrator scene really "vibes" 😋 with me. Would love to read about other obscure nodes of manson-cinema lore.

Terrapin said...

Am i reading this right that Mark Ross was in an episode of Starsky & Hutch?

Gorodish said...

Terrapin said.....

Am i reading this right that Mark Ross was in an episode of Starsky & Hutch?

Yes he was, in the episode "Bloodbath" using the above mentioned name Aesop Aquarian. I'm guessing, by his use of that name, that he joined up with Father Yod's crew after the Manson clan drifted apart.

Gorodish said...

I got a kick out of the book's author's description of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" as "like a reverse Manson, in which the young band of hippies are the ones who are terrorized and slaughtered at the hands of a demented (and literal) family of killers who are shunned and separated from society." I guess the "reverse" of Leatherface and his chainsaw would be Tex and his bayonet. Also interesting is the lead female of TTCSM was the late Marilyn Burns, who also played Linda Kasabian in "Helter Skelter".

Matthew Record said...

Not sure how TTCSM is a reverse. The people slaughtered by the family were not demented. Sharon fit the peace loving hippy of the day more.

AstroCreep said...

Who burned in hang gliding- karma

DebS said...

Back in December 2017 I did a post on the History Channel's show on "Manson Speaks: Inside the Mind of a Madman".

http://www.mansonblog.com/2017_12_05_archive.html

In the post I speculated that the reason Mark Ross changed his name to Aesop Aquarian was because he joined a group called Source Family. This group was lead by a man named Father Yod aka YaHoWa, true name James Edward Baker. Via emails with someone who was familiar with people in the group, I learned that Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian, who are the group's archivists, were completely distressed that one of their own was a former Manson Family member.

My contact gave Isis and Electricity a link to my post so they could watch the program and determine for themselves if Aesop Aquarian was really Mark Ross. They were disbelieving at first but after viewing the show they agreed that Mark and Aesop were one in the same. Mark/Aesop was asked to disassociate himself from the Source Family.

They also took down their website which I linked to in my post. It was a great, informational site with plenty of pictures and text about the history of the group. They are very, very protective of the Source Family's image and they did not want to be linked in any way to the Manson Family.

*Astro Creep, it was Father Yod who died in a hang gliding accident, in Hawaii in 1975.

AstroCreep said...

Deb, yes.. I didn’t clarify but yes.

Proteus said...

Of course, the combined death toll attributed to Manson and his Family was much higher than seven, and included [...] lawyer Ronald Hughes ...

Er, is there any evidence to support that?

Matt said...

Clearly Diabolique's knowledge of TV and film are its strengths, and knowledge of the TLB case is not.

DebS said...

Of course, the combined death toll attributed to Manson and his Family was much higher than seven, and included [...] lawyer Ronald Hughes ...

Er, is there any evidence to support that?
-----------

The first hint that I could find which implicated the Family in Hughes death was in a March 24 1971 LA Times article. The article stated an anonymous call was made to LA County saying that Ron Hughes was buried in an area behind the barn at Barker Ranch. LA County contacted Inyo County who sent two deputies and an assistant district attorney to Barker to survey the area and dig behind the barn. No body was found, obviously.

Then Bugliosi, in his book, opined that James Forsher and Lauren Elder who drove Hughes to Sespe could have been James and Lauren Willett due to the same first names, thus giving the impression that the Family may have has something to do with Hughes death.

This speculation by Bugliosi was flawed in a couple of different ways. The Willett's did not meet any Family members until 1972. James was in the military at the time Hughes went missing. Also, the ages of Forsher and Elder did not match the Willett's ages. Forsher and Elder were from the LA area, their parents lived there and they went to school there. They were both 17 years old at the time.

The Willett's were from back east, James from Kentucky and Lauren from Connecticut where their respective parents lived. They were older than Forsher and Elder. They were two separate couples with the same first names.

It was probably Bugliosi's speculation that fueled the idea that the Family had something to do with Hughes death and that speculation has continued to this day.

Proteus said...

Thanks, DebS. Lots of speculation and loose thinking in this case :-)

Milly James said...

I understand that sniffer dogs have alerted in the Barker Ranch area. Of course, the poor lawyer has been accounted for but there are a shocking amount of missing people in this world. I also find it a bit odd that Mr Hughes was on a weekend with such a young couple in the first place.

grimtraveller said...

DebS said...

Then Bugliosi, in his book, opined that James Forsher and Lauren Elder who drove Hughes to Sespe could have been James and Lauren Willett due to the same first names, thus giving the impression that the Family may have has something to do with Hughes death.....This speculation by Bugliosi was flawed in a couple of different ways......It was probably Bugliosi's speculation that fueled the idea that the Family had something to do with Hughes death and that speculation has continued to this day

The interesting thing here is that in the same book, in the same section, Bugliosi notes:
"It appears unlikely that James Forsher and James Willett were the same person: Willett would have been 24 in 1970, not 17. But Lauren is a decidedly uncommon name. And 19 in 1972, she would have been 17 in 1970.
Coincidence ? There had been far stranger ones in this case."

{As a quick aside, since 1978, I have always read that sentence of Bugliosi's as "There have been far stranger ones in this case." I've only just now for the first time noticed that it says 'had.'}
What really appears to have stoked the speculation beyond that initial "woah, James and Lauren ?" moment was when Laurence Merrick said that Sandy had claimed that Hughes' death was the first of the retaliation murders. The supposed witness to the statement {it was off camera} wasn't identified and as far as I'm aware, has never come forward to say "Yeah, she said it." Sandy is on record denying it utterly. Of course, statements about people's deaths weren't foreign to Sandy at the time that Robert Hendrickson was filming the Family so I wouldn't be surprised if she said it. She has stated other wild things in her time.
Funnily enough, James Forsher sued Bugliosi some time later, saying that the impression was left that he was somehow connected to either the Family or the death of Ronald Hughes or both.
It got thrown out and I can see why it got thrown out. Although I didn't always have this view, I can see why Forsher tried to sue although I do think it was a daft move.

Milly James said...

I also find it a bit odd that Mr Hughes was on a weekend with such a young couple in the first place

Not when you consider Ron's affinity with the counterculture and the fact that though it was 1970, many people were still living the 60s.

Doug Smith said...

Deb - Around Dec 2017 I briefly dated a woman living in Washington State named Rose. She - like Ross/Aesop - "did time" in two "cult" organizations. She was a childhood member of The Children of God (The FAMILY International no less) in Thurber Texas and, after her parents fled and parted ways...with both , one another AND TFI, she and her mother and 2 sisters joined The Source.

Rose and her sisters left in the late 80s when Rose was around 20-ish. Their mother stayed.

The stories she told me (I never pushed her - she was doing well but quite messed up over the sexual and mental abuse at the direction of David Berg and, Karen Zerby - was horrifying at best). Possibly far, far more heinous than what the members of the MF faced/endured at the Ranches. It made me angry hearing it. It also made me physically ill.

The Source Family experience was not as heinous IMO and, in Rose's BUT...she spent a bit of time crowded in that Hollywood 3br with 150 people just before moving to Hawaii. She said that Hawaii was awesome at first but as she hit her teens, she really began to hate it. Even the music no longer united the people of The Source as it had. (Djin Aquariun has confirmed this in private conversations since Rose and I split up. He and I spoke about music around 97% of the time we spoke).

Mark/Aesop got off super freaking easy. However - one wonders how immersed he was to be largely "written out" of the Source Family historical data. One would believe he may have been a senior or important member for them to put energies into dissociation.
If he was somewhat important...then, how deep was his own personal ugliness?

DebS said...

Doug, that's an interesting story. Looking at Aesop's bio at IMDb, he is credited for appearing on an episode of a TV series using the stage name of Aesop Aquarian back in 1976. Though, I don't know when he first joined the Source Family. I understand that they did not come into being until 1972, pretty much after the Manson saga trials were over.

I do know that he legally changed his name from Mark Ross to Aesop Aquarian and has used the Aesop name for decades now. His filmography list is quite long.

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0032592/

So, I guess one could say he was a senior member of the Source Family. While Isis and Electricity Aquarian may not want Aesop to be associated with the Source, I doubt that there is anything meaningful that they can do about it at this point. That's the problem of everyone taking the same last name, a name that defines one as being a part of the Source Family.

Gorodish said...

Being familiar with Father Yod, I recognized the Source connection when I first read that Mark Ross was Aesop Aquarian some time ago. As a collector of rare garage and psychedelia records/CDs, I've always been intrigued by the Father Yod saga. Back in 1983, at a Thousand Oaks, CA garage sale, I bought a box of around 150 records for 200 bucks. Included in the bunch were a half dozen rare Father Yod/Ya Ho Wha 13 records, which I later found out, after I sold them on EBay 20 years later, were worth an arm & a leg to collectors. They were trippy records with chants and free form instrumental jams that had somewhat limited appeal, but I liked them. The records were originally sold out of the Source health food restaurant on Sunset Blvd. and were very limited pressings. Apparently the restaurant was a gold mine, bringing in 10K a week, which was a fortune back then, and enabled them to rent the Chandler mansion and allow other indulgences. It was probably all very attractive to a young man of Aesop/Mark's age back then, just as Manson's Family was...the old "guru with a harem" trip. Here is Aesop's web page :
Aesop T.Aquarian-Have Guitar Will Travel
It contains a lot of interesting pics of him. He definitely has gotten around, and has had a bunch of small parts to his credentials. I also saw that Djin Aquarian, one of the original three Ya Ho Wha musicians, has a public FB page, and Aesop is a follower of the page, so apparently the pariah thing isn't shared by all ex-Source members.

Milly James said...

I accept that from his point of view it would be great to 'hang out with the kids' but as a young menber of a couple I would detest having an 'owd git' crashing my weekend.

Milly James said...

Sorry, my point being that I find the lawyer's death hugely suspicious.

DebS said...

Milly, incase you missed it, you should read a post by Matt on Ron Hughes.

https://www.mansonblog.com/2018/03/ron-hughes-look-back-at-remarkable-man.html

xreles said...

It looks like I've found footage of Charlie in South America.

https://tenor.com/view/beffen-gif-5939233

Doug Smith said...

Speaking on the topic of Yod and Garage Rock...

https://youtu.be/X16lG18xVuc

Recently played with the LOVE Revisited Band (feat Johnny Echols) in SF on tbe day of Cupid's successful parole decision.

Sans Sunlight of course...but talk about a multitude of Six Degrees of Separation!

From Bouseleil with the Grass Roots through Sky/Bobby/Sebring in Mondo Hollywood...to the Mothers in Topanga with Gail not-yet Zappa and Bobby Jameson being backed by 3 members of Love on his 7" And, dating Gail to The Buffalo Springfield/Mama Cass and Neil Young/Spiral Staircase connection. To Neil Young trying to get Love's Ken Forssi in The BS to replace Bruce Palmer to former BS groupies/Manson Family members...I could list 20+ more connections.

That garage sale score sounds insane! Any other notable records?

The range of people touched by the "hands" of the MF is ridiculously vast

Dan S said...

Lol! That's what he meant by "show blackie how to do it"

starviego said...

If you look at TLB/Manson/Family as some long-running TV drama, it would probably be one of the highest-grossing shows ever. Including the movies, TV specials, news reports, book and magazine tie-ins, retrospectives, etc.

On that basis alone, Charlie should have been given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame long ago.

Dan S said...

Do they have an infamy section?

grimtraveller said...

Milly James said...

I find the lawyer's death hugely suspicious

Well, it didn't do to be connected to the Family, even in the most tenuous way......"Suspicious" deaths abound ~ Zero, Joel Pugh, Ronald Hughes, Darwin Scott, Randy Starr, Pat's sister Charlene, Mark Walts. Having ignored information linking the Family to Cielo, LE weren't up for making that error again and went perhaps to the other extreme of linking them to any death where even the slightest connection existed, even if it wasn't murder.
That crowd were deemed a murder mystery, indeed.

I would detest having an 'owd git' crashing my weekend

It wasn't so unusual though. The Manson troupe was that, in a way. In both the USA and UK at the time, there was a coming together of class, age, race {well, more than had been previously} and gender from different ends of the scope. As one of many examples, think of Miles Davis. Though in his 40s he was hanging with younger guys in their teens {Tony Williams} and 20s, from America and Europe {Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin}. It seems also a little less unusual for the opposite sex of wildly varying ages to be hanging together in that period.

Matthew Record said...

A bit off topic, but is anyone else listening to the "You must remember Manson" podcast? It is really interesting and well done.

grimtraveller said...

In both the USA and UK at the time, there was a coming together of class, age, race {well, more than had been previously} and gender from different ends of the scope

Come to think of it, the jazz world was well ahead of the curve a good 3 decades before the 60s.

Milly James said...

Not all those happy fellows were a lawyer for the Manson gang were they?

starviego said...

"is anyone else listening to the "You must remember Manson" podcast?"

I caught it a while back. Did Karina do another episode?

Milly James said...

Thanks Deb. Will do so.

Matthew Record said...

starviego said...

"is anyone else listening to the "You must remember Manson" podcast?"

I caught it a while back. Did Karina do another episode

There are 12 episodes all together on the Manson series.

Matthew Record said...


You Must Remember This
The podcast about the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood's first century
There are also many other Hollywood history episodes as well. The Ramon Novarro episodes were interesting.