A chilling chapter in American murder is revisited in “House of Manson”

The summer of 1969 presented the best and worst of the so-called hippy era. In New York, a few hundred thousand young people gathered in peace and harmony for a three-day concert featuring some icons of rock music. It was called Woodstock, and a surprised nation marveled at how this came off with such positive vibes.

But then on the other side of the country, what seemed like another communal gathering of peace and love in Southern California soon degenerated into a perverse, murderous attempt to spark an Armageddon-like race war. This became known as the Tate-LaBianca killings, orchestrated my a charismatic but evilly manipulative misfit named Charles Manson.

The Tate-LaBianca murders, which also became known as Helter Skelter, stunned the nation, not only because one of the victims, Sharon Tate, was an actress and very pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, but also because of their brutality and the later discovery that the murders mostly were committed by young women.

The late Vincent Bugliosi, who was the chief prosecutor in Los Angeles in the criminal case against Manson and his followers, chronicled the chilling story of these horrendous murders in his now classic “Helter Skelter,” and in 1976, a two-part made-for-television movie featured Steve Railsback in a chilling portrayal of Manson.

Other projects have explored the murders that Manson ordered, and the latest effort is “House of Manson,” currently available on DVD in the United Kingdom — but being shipped to those who order it in the United States. The movie also is set for screenings at horror conventions and film festivals.

Written and directed by Brandon Slagle, “House of Manson” focuses primarily on Manson, played by Ryan Kiser, and how this person, an illegitimate child of a disinterested mother, managed to become a Messiah-like figure to young, impressionable and disenfranchised people.

The movie begins with police rounding up Manson and his “family” about two months after the August 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, and with Manson now in jail, he is interviewed by a potential defense attorney, Ronald Hughes (Chriss Anglin). Through flashbacks, Manson’s story is detailed. While being raised in an unloving home, he is told one day by his uncle that he is a rebel, and not to forget that.

By the time he is an adult, Manson already has spent a lot of time in jail or reform school. He meets a woman, gets married and has a son. But his only job skill seems to be strong-arm robbery, which naturally lands him in jail. While Manson is serving time, his wife moves away, taking the son with her.

When Manson is released from prison, he is immediately taken by a change in the tone in America — a rebellious population of young people thumbing their noses at traditions, living for the moment. This is Charlie’s niche.

Manson fancies himself as a singer-songwriter and in his wanderings soon hooks up with other free spirits.

It is apparent that Manson has leadership qualities, but his ability to mesmerize and exert influence goes astray and he begins offering his twisted version of biblical philosophy along with a scary prediction of a vast race war that will devastate mankind. But only he and his followers will be wise enough to foresee what is coming and prepare for it and survive — likely to become the ruling class.

This all seem harmless enough — musings that are enhanced by the drugs and alcohol consumption that supposedly opens the mind to a new awareness. But this all takes a sinister turn when Manson starts soliciting vows from his followers that they be willing to die for him.

When Manson feels he has been betrayed by record producer Terry Melcher (Jason McNeil), this seems to serve as a trigger that unleashes an urgency in the man and a need to hasten his Helter Skelter prophecy that leads to the killings.

The most disturbing aspect of the “Helter Skelter” TV movie was showing how the young women — Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel — along with Tex Watson — not only willingly carried out these brutal murders, but in the case of Atkins and Van Houten, remained unrepentant after being captured and put on trial.

One of the disquieting parts of “Helter Skelter” was Atkins, portrayed by Nancy Wolfe, serenely and matter-of-factly giving her testimony to a grand jury, presenting the gruesome details of the crimes.

While “House of Manson” does a good job of putting the spotlight on Charles Manson — Kiser is at his best during his preaching to his followers, displaying a man who might have been brilliant and productive had those gifts been properly nurtured — the movie would have benefited from additional footage showcasing the actual murderers.

Devanny Pinn stands out as Atkins, first seen as a person who seems finally to have found a place where she can fit in — content and loving — who soon becomes an ardent follower of Manson and giggles at the prospect of killing people. Her blissful, smiling confession to police of the murders is chilling. It is an unsettling scene that etches itself indelibly into the viewer’s mind.

That Atkins revels in her actions is terrifying, given the abhorrent nature of the killing, unflinchingly presented in the movie. Particularly horrific is the repeated stabbings of Abigail Folger, played by Tristan Risk — who was riveting as the disturbed woman in Jessica Cameron’s “Mania” and delivered a stunning performance as Beatress, the Betty Boop-like stripper in the Soska Sisters’ “American Mary.” Bolger, mortally wounded, begs her killer to stop. “I’m already dead,” she chokes out. But the stabbing continues.

Kiser’s Manson is so lacking in conscience that he will say and do anything to achieve his goals. When he is able to surround himself with people willing to blindly accept every word he says and eagerly do his bidding, he becomes a menace.

Watson (Reid Warner) becomes an able lieutenant to Manson, directing and participating in the attacks on the victims, finding Atkins and Van Houten (Julie Rose) particularly motivated to kill in adrenalin-fueled fury.

Erin Marie Hogan portrays Manson family member Linda Kasabian as a person caught up in the pseudo wisdom of Manson but clueless as to what is going to happen when she is sent with the others to carry out Manson’s directives. Horrified by the murders she sees, she eventually would become a key witness for the prosecution.

“House of Manson” is a riveting retelling of a bloody chapter in American crime. Slagle’s script, ably played out by Kiser, Pinn, Hogan and others, captures the viewer’s attention, and even though you know what is going to happen, you cannot help but watch with fascination as it it unfolds.

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