In the wake of Charles Manson's death Sunday night at the age of 83 has come a new wave of stories about Manson, his "Family," and the horrific murders he committed. Though he spent most of his life in prison, Manson has exerted a strange pull on American culture. Partly this was because of how famous the killings became, partly this was because Manson did lots of interviews from prison—you can easily watch him fuck with Geraldo Rivera or make some goofy faces—but partly it's because it's so hard to understand why Manson's followers did such horrible things.
The definitive Manson footage isn't footage of Manson, who spent his live trying to manipulate people—it's the chilling interviews of his Family in the 1973 documentary, Manson.
This seminal Manson doc, directed by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick, is mostly made up of verité footage of the Manson Family doing their daily routines around their commune, intercut with interviews with them. In one of the film's early moments, Manson Family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme—who would later serve time for her attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford—lazily spells out the Manson Family values.
"Whatever is necessary to do, you do it," Fromme says. "When somebody needs to be killed, there’s no wrong. You do it, and then you move on. And you pick up a child and you move him to the desert. You pick up as many children as you can and you kill whoever gets in your way. This is us."
Later, Fromme shows off a vest made of locks of members' hair, which they cut off to prove their loyalty to Manson after his head was shaved in prison. These chilling moments are made even more effective by the mundane way Fromme discusses killing and her faith in Manson. The rest of the doc gives plenty of screen time to members—many of them young women—letting them show off their rifles and talk at length about the garbled hippie beliefs instilled by Manson and their moral relativism about murder.
“We are what you have made us," a Family member named Brenda says at one point. "We were brought up on your TV. We were brought up watching Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, F.B.I., Combat. Combat was my favourite show."
The film was shot by Hendrickson and Merrick between 1969 and 1972—after Manson and a handful of Family members had been arrested for the murders but before the story had been cemented as a cultural touchstone in the 1974 book Helter Skelter—with the Family footage filmed primarily at the Western film-set-turned-Manson compound Spahn Ranch and in Death Valley. The whole thing was scored by Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins, two former Manson Family members.
According to AFI, Manson debuted in 1972 at the Venice Film Festival and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award that year, but didn't get anything close to a wide release until the mid-1970s. These days, Manson is difficult to track down unless you buy an autographed DV-R copy from the director himself. Or you could just watch it on YouTube.