Charlie Says, 2018.
Directed by Mary Harron.
Starring Matt Smith, Suki Waterhouse, Merritt Wever, Hannah Murray, Annabeth Gish, Grace Van Dien, Sosie Bacon, Chace Crawford, and Marianne Rendon.
Three ‘Manson Girls’ tell their story to a grad student, coming to realise that what they did in Charlie’s name was wrong.
It’s odd that in these highly sensitive and (allegedly) enlightened times Charles Manson has transcended from being America’s boogeyman to a movie villain with the shtick and screen presence of post-Dream Warriors Freddy Krueger. Then again, it is also odd that Freddy Krueger began life as a child molester and became a pop culture icon with his face on kid’s lunchboxes but such is the way of the world. The difference, though, is that Freddy is fictional.
Charlie Says is not the first movie to tackle the subject of Charles Manson and the crimes committed by his so-called ‘Family’, and you can bet that it won’t be the last, but the problem that this – and pretty much any other movie on the subject – has is that the definitive telling of the events that lead to the murder of actress Sharon Tate and the guests at her home in 1969 has already been made in the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter – itself based on the book of the same name by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi – and anything else is either a reinterpretation of that or just complete fiction.
And so a different angle is needed to try and retell the same events in a slightly more original way, and Charlie Says does try and do that by digging into the psyche of three of Manson’s female followers. However, try as it might the film just doesn’t go deep enough into what made these young women give themselves over to Manson, a fact that is borne out during the opening few scenes where Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray – Game of Thrones) is introduced to Charlie (Matt Smith – Doctor Who) and she is immediately smitten and… that is it. Both actors do what is necessary to convey the notion that this older, seedier man is going to corrupt this innocent young girl but it just happens too quickly with little substance behind it.
The core of the film is that Van Houten, Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon – Mapplethorpe) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon – Scream: The TV Series) are incarcerated and being interviewed and examined by graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever – Signs) and through telling their stories to her they come to realise the error of their ways. A brave attempt at a fresh take on the subject to be sure but the film never feels like it is revealing anything that wasn’t public knowledge anyway, as if everyone in the world knows that killing is wrong except for these three young women who just need a little bit more convincing, and when the conclusion of the film finally comes there isn’t really a huge ‘revelation’ moment and it just sort of meanders to a finish, telling us what we already know but still expecting a reaction.
But for all of the writing flaws there is still some good to take from Charlie Says. Obviously Matt Smith as Charlie is going to be the central focal point and he does do a convincing job of reflecting Manson’s known public persona. The tics and 1000-yard death stare are all nailed down and Smith’s manic delivery is pretty much bang on but what the filmmakers cannot disguise is the fact that Smith is quite a bit taller than Manson actually was, making him seem more domineering during scenes where he is stood in front of these young women – which kind of misses the point of Manson’s ability to manipulate these people as he was such a short man and offered little physical threat – and no matter how much fake facial hair Matt Smith wears he is still far too good looking to be Charles Manson, which leads us back to the writing to try and make us believe what we are hearing, and back around we go again.
The set designs, costumes and performances from the other leads are all convincing and really put you in Spahn Ranch during 1969, but, again, the writing is so obvious and doesn’t venture deeper than what we already know so it is the scenes in the prison with Karlene Faith and the three women that offer the most interest. Merritt Wever does a wonderful job in putting forward a more sympathetic but still authoritarian view as Karlene Faith tries to get at what Charlie did or said to these women to make them think like they do. Thanks to the script she – and therefore us – never quite gets there but there is definitely a seed of something worth attempting again if the screenwriters can get past the historical points that every Manson ‘biopic’ (for use of a better word) uses for sensationalism and really try to scratch beneath the surface of what made Manson’s followers believe what he told them.
Given that serial killers have really entered the mainstream recently with TV shows and movies dedicated to monsters being portrayed by handsome actors in glossy Netflix and Amazon productions then Charlie Says will no doubt do well, and it is worth a rental if you have any interest in the Charles Manson case just to see an attempt at a different spin, but Helter Skelter is still the movie to go to if you want the full picture, with Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family a close second if you fancy a more tripped-out grindhouse take on events. Charlie Says, for all of its noble intentions, has the spirit and nods towards similar territory but, whether due to restraint, interference or whatever, just never quite gets there.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★