Charlie Says (2018)
Directed by: Mary Harron
Written by: Ed Sanders, Guinevere Turner, Karlene Faith
Starring: Chace Crawford, Grace Van Dien, Hannah Murray, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Merritt Wever, Sosie Bacon, Suki Waterhouse
CHARLIE SAYS (2018)
Directed by Mary Harron
Set 3 years after the incarceration of Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwickel, following their involvement in the Manson murders, CHARLIE SAYS explores their time spent with Charles Manson at the Spahn Ranch in California. Feminist and graduate lecturer Karlene Faith is brought into prison to help teach the girls and attempt to break the hold that Charlie has over them by making them remember who they were before being brainwashed by Charlie. Only then will they begin to accept the crimes they have committed.
American Psycho director Mary Harron takes a different approach to the true life crimes of the Manson family in CHARLIE SAYS, one of a few films released this year that coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Manson family murders of a pregnant Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Where other films, past and present, have focused on Charles Manson, this story instead looks at three of the young women involved in his family and how deeply they fell under Charlie’s spell, to the point that they would commit murder to speed up the race war that Charles Manson theorised would happen. Inspired by Karlene Faith’s book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten and Ed Sanders’ The Family, the film flits between the three women in prison and their lives within the family.
One of the main draws of this film when I first saw the trailer was that the clean cut Dr Who star Matt Smith had been the one cast as the crazed ‘wizard’ Charles Manson and boy does he do a brilliant job. He’s the right part of charming, encouraging his group to let themselves go and love one another, but also shows his controlling tendencies such as when he loses his cool after being rejected by record producer Terry Melcher and being questioned on his actions by Leslie. A master manipulator, Charlie has his followers eating out of the palm of his hand, having them believe they are truly in the midst of the Helter Skelter race war as talked about in The Beatles’ song of the same name (note to reader: the song is not about this, Manson just interpreted it into that). The focus on the women, Leslie Van Houten in particular, highlights just how brainwashed they are as the girls serve their male masters and are slaves to Charlie’s whims. Unfortunately, the other women in the group perpetuate the rules to Leslie when she first arrives on the scene, reciting the words Charlie has spoken as if it were the gospel truth. There’s a reason why the title of this film is Charlie Says and through his teachings being vocalised within the echo chamber of the family, the group begin to lose grip on reality and believe Charlie’s version wholeheartedly.
Most of us are already familiar with what happened regarding the murders, and, to a point, the killings are skipped over, only showing key moments which depict the involvement of the three main girls. Their manic stares are a contrast to their happy-go-lucky smiles in prison as therapist Karlene Smith tries her utmost to make them see through the veil that Charlie has cast over them. It takes a while for them to connect with the fact that they actually killed innocent people for no reason and that Manson’s promises of Helter Skelter and that the girls will sprout wings and turn into elves were just words, nothing more. The film highlights these young women as disillusioned victims of Charlie themselves, as well as being murderers. It doesn’t put them at the same level of victimisation as the true victims of the murders but it shows that they too were destroyed by Manson. This is the first film I’ve seen that has taken this approach to the Manson events but it does so in a way that does not excuse these women of their crimes but also outlines that they fell prey to a manipulative leader in Charles Manson.
The performances throughout the film are outstanding and really take you to the summer of 1969. They’re so convincing that I found there were many moments in the movie in which I wished the girls would see Charlie for who he really is. At the same time, his affable personality he displays attempts to win you over and you can partly see why the girls became disciples to his teachings. Merritt Wever’s role in the film as Karlene reflects the view of the audience as she attempts to connect and get through to the three women to get them to realise the truth of what Charlie is and so they can accept their own truth so that they can ultimately be punished. As long as they were ignorant of the truth, they wouldn’t acknowledge what they had done was an actual crime.
From what I’ve read about Charles Manson, his ideas and the events what went on, the portrayal in this movie seems pretty well researched. There’s elements of artistic licence and bits missing from the movie, such as the family partying at Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson’s house whereas in the movie Wilson is often present at the Ranch, and the ‘first’ meeting with Terry Melcher, but that’s to be expected. However, the core of the film seems about right and the way in that the guys and girls fawn over Manson, even as much to kill for him, is what really terrifies.
Chilling and disturbing in equal measures, CHARLIE SAYS captures the inner-workings of a cult and how it affects those hypnotised by it