DVD Review – Manson Girl, aka Manson, My Name Is Evil

Neither of those titles in the headline were the original name for Reginald Harkema’s film. As it played festivals earlier this year and last, the picture was known as Leslie, My Name is Evil.┬áThis original titles refers to Leslie Van Houton, a member of the Manson family committed to life imprisonment in 1971 for her part in the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Much of the film is concerned with the events of that trial, but also features a fictionalised, stylised account of Van Houton’s life in the years immediately prior, and her increasing involvement with Manson and his acolytes. In parallel, we follow the path that leads a young juror called Perry to the trial, and into range of Leslie’s seductive influence.

Of course, you won’t learn any dependable history lessons from the film, but you’re likely to appreciate it more if you do know something of the actual events portrayed and their social and political context. Some of this context is very well represented in the film, not least the ongoing Vietnam war which is regularly invoked as point contrast or comparison to the Manson murders. Harkema’s ultimate mission, it seems, is to expose the hypocrisy of an American public that will condemn anybody involved with Manson and his cult at the same time as endorsing or ignoring the massacres of the Vietnam conflict.

As the film progresses, the stories of Leslie and Perry are entwined in the courtroom as she flirts and he responds. It’s an uncomfortable idea, perhaps more so in essence than in execution. Kristen Hager makes for a striking Leslie, not least because she looks so similar to the real Van Houton. It was good to see Don McKellar as the prosecutor – it’s always good to see Don McKellar.

Much of Harkema’s favoured filmmaking technique is arch and distancing, limiting the emotional involvement any audience is likely to build up with the characters, and therefore film will be better appreciated on a more intellectual level. From the sets, costumes and make-up, which are often reminiscent of cheap television, to the employment of alienating rear projection and library footage, it’s clear that Harkema is interested in provoking the audience’s minds more often than he is their reflexes.

Some of the best stuff, though, is the most direct-hitting. There are multiple sequences staged and edited to pieces of music. Glibly, these might be compared to music videos but that would prove not really apt and entirely useless. The scenes do derive power from their music, however, and from their images, and a lot of it is far more immediately compelling and to-the-gut than the more traditional “narrative” scenes elsewhere.

In one sequence, the character of Perry and his girlfriend look off-frame. When the camera cuts to show us their POV, the match is made not to another staged shot but to black and white archival material. It’s similar to a trick to one Gilliam employed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, at the moment when Johnny Depp pulled aside the curtain, looked outside and in voice over, gave us Thompson’s “high-water mark” speech. Gilliam’s trick is a little more complex, but there’s certainly some genuinely cinematic thinking in Harkema’s version. I was not at all surprised to read that Harkema comes with a CV of editing gigs, many of them for films by great modern Canadian directors.

Harkema regularly shows ambition and dexterity, then routinely takes the shine off of his own accomplishment with something less well-judged. There’s some issues of taste, other times the film seems to entirely abandon subtlety, but worst of all, from time to time it seems condescending. With a lot of discipline, smoother scripts and less energy spent in trying to impress, he may mature into a more dependable filmmaker. Manson Girl would convince very nicely as an early, ambitious and promising piece by a director who later went on greater, more coherent works once he got up from his knees and turned around, walked away from his shelf full of Godard essays.

John Waters has openly condemned the film. He’s been a friend of friend of Leslie Van Houton since he interviewed he in the 80s and has supported her subsequent repeated attempts to attain parole. He told the Montreal Mirror:

The title is appalling. Both myself and Leslie were horrified this movie was made and I will never be able to watch it no matter what the intent. Sigh.

He reviews the title – now moot, and the basic existence of the film – completely unacceptable to him. But why won’t he actually watch the film? What possible reason is there not to? Surely any downside will be outweighed by the benefits of seeing the film?

Optimum are releasing Manson Girl on UK Region 2 DVD today. The American release, under the name Manson, My Name Is Evil is due from Lionsgate on October 12th.