Charlie Says (2019) hit the theater as a limited release in 2019, and pretty much came and went, barely even registering a showing at the box office, only taking in about $37,000. Despite this poor showing, it is actually a pretty good film, well worth checking out. The movie comes at the TLB saga from a different angle- a post-murders, feminist slant. The production values are relatively good, and there are some decent performances. It is currently available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Roku.
When it comes to movies about the Manson saga, it is probably best to look at the films from two angles- how does it work as a movie, i.e. entertainment, and how does it fit into the whole area of Manson/TLB studies regarding accuracy. This film is not a documentary, so problems with accuracy should not deter you from viewing it. Word of warning: there is abundant nudity and sexual situation in the film.
The source material for the movie is The Family by Ed Sanders, and The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten by Karlene Faith (the producers add a disclaimer at the end that the movie was made without the cooperation of Leslie and Katie. Susan had already passed away at this point). The primary focus of the movie is on Lulu, with Katie and Karlene Faith playing prominent supporting roles. Susan does feature as well, but not too as large a degree as the others. Charlie is of course in a large number of scenes, but he is not the focus of the film.
The film itself alternates between two time periods- the mid 1970s and the months leading up to the TLB murders. Karlene Faith is a grad student that is invited by the warden of the California Institute for Women to teach courses to Lulu, Sadie, and Katie, who are being kept in isolation after having had their death sentences overturned. Karlene is a feminist scholar and focuses part of the sessions with the girls on the premise that they may also be victims of Manson's abuse. As the story progresses, the girls come to some painful realizations about the lives they led with Manson and the horrors they took part in.
All of the actors involved do a good job, with some giving real scene stealing performances. Hannah Murray as Leslie and Sosie Bacon as Katie are very expressive and emotional in their portrayals. Marianne Rendon actually underplays Sadie, making her more pensive than the typical over the top crazy Sadie portrayals we have come to expect. Merritt Wever really nails the socially conscious and empathetic Ms. Faith.
Some scenes to look out for: Paul Watkins bringing a young girl to the ranch who doesn't fall for Charlie's act or his jailhouse pimp games, Melcher's visit to Spahn for Charlie's music showcase, Charlie's physical and sexual abuse of Sadie over salad dressing (this really highlights his misogyny and control over the women) and the final key scenes in the movie: the LaBianca's murders and the cut to the 'present' when it really sinks in for Leslie.
The LaBianca's murder scene is harrowing. We see the casualness of Charlie dispatching them inside, the confusion and mounting terror in Lulu, Rosemary's desperate fight for her life against a knife wielding Katie as she hears her husband being murdered down the hall. It culminates with Tex and Katie prodding Lulu to stab Rosemary. Hannah Murray plays this scene to great effect, punctuating each stab with her own blood curdling screams. The look she has on her blood spattered face afterwards is powerful.
Now onto the actual history in the film. A lot of the Manson movies are hampered by the fact that there is an awful lot of information and back story to pack into a running time of around two hours. Out of necessity, things are left out or condensed for storytelling's sake, or put onto composite characters or other characters. Charlie says at times suffers from some of these faults.
The set at Spahn is pretty accurate, and it is actually the same set used in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We also get to see Squeaky taking care of George (in more ways than one), Charlie orchestrating an orgy, Charlie's head games, the acid trips, Dennis Wilson, the Straight Satans, etc. these scenes come and go pretty quickly.
The motive for the murders is presented as being part Helter Skelter and part Manson's frustration at his derailed music career. After Melcher passes on Charlie's music, Charlie starts to spiral, becoming more and more aggressive in pushing Helter Skelter on the Family. Helter Skelter was mentioned in passing at first, but after this rejection, it takes center stage.
The filmmakers actually gave most of the women distinct, actual personalities, rather than the cartoonish portrayals they often get in some films.
The murders themselves receive little screen time. We are shown Tex and Sadie getting high on speed the night of Cielo. the murders at Cielo are condensed into a short but powerful scene of Sadie holding a terrified and pleading Sharon while Katie tells Tex to 'kill her.' Tex slashes Sharon's face and then the scene ends. The Waverly scene is slightly longer, but the actual murders aren't depicted in a graphic manner where we see Rosemary being stabbed by Leslie- we just see Leslie thrusting a knife over and over.
Manson here is shown to be more of a con man and wannabe pimp than in some of his other on screen portrayals. He is shown to be manipulative more than he is shown to be some kind of mystical guru with extraordinary powers of persuasion and the ability to stop clocks. He uses a mix of drugs, physical abuse, sex, jailhouse games, and some pseudo philosophy in order to manipulate the Family members.
Overall, Charlie Says is one of the better Manson related films. The performances of the leads make it standout, and the portrayal of the relationships between the three women and Manson are fascinating to watch. It also includes a fairly accurate portrayal of life at Spahn.