Charlie Says - Haunting, Shocking Even After 50 Years

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Charlie Says, from IFC Films, brings to the screen an intimate look at the Manson Family Cult, through the eyes of the three women who lived with him, loved him, believed his lunacy and ultimately murdered for him.

Directed by Mary Harron, Charlie Says stars Matt Smith, Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Merritt Wever, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Ferris, Suki Waterhouse, Grace van Dien, Annabeth Gish, Kimmy Shields, James Trevena -Brown, Bryan Adrian, Jackie Joyner, Tracey Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLoed, Cameron Gellman, Darien Sills-Evans, Christopher Frontiero and Dan Olivo.

The film opens with a woman showering, blood dripping off her we can see she is deep in thought. We don't know if she is injured or what has happened. The scene moves to the Kitchen, where a man, who we find out later is Tex Watson, played by Chace Crawford, opens the refrigerator door and in blood we see, "Death to Pigs."

Just then the female from the shower, whom we find out is Leslie Van Houten, played by Hannah Murray, walks into the kitchen, and hands her clothes to Patricia Krenwinkel, played by Sosie Bacon. They are at the home Leo and Rosemary LaBianca. It is August 1969.


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The three leave the house and began the long walk back to the ranch, tossing the bag of clothes in the hills somewhere, they caught a ride. After stopping for breakfast, the three made it back to the ranch.

Charlie Says begins at the LaBianca Murders and then relives the moments that lead to this cataclysmic devastation.

Soon we are transported to the early days at Spahn Ranch, Charles Manson, played by Matt Smith, an aspiring musician is surrounded by impressionable females, all young late teens early twenties, some just grooving on the vibe, others believing his madness, and others devoted disciples to his doctrine.

As it was 1969, the Haight-Asbury Northern Hippie movement made its way down the coast and settled like many a drifter in Los Angeles, homeless, hungry and in need of community, Manson, who had just been paroled, attracted women effortlessly, some would say it was charm, magnetism. He had rock star looks, swagger, and could actually play the guitar and sing.

Brian Wilson, played by James Trevena-Brown, is also in the film and captures the sentiment best, "I'm not a part of this family but I love this family." As the girls, in triplicate, would freely show him a good time.

To Charlie, the girls were commodity. They with enough convincing would prostitute themselves and freely give the money to "The Family" participate in orgies, always believing it was for enlightenment, to free themselves from the hindrances of their own mind control over their bodies. In fact, he was slowly building a mental control using these orgies as mind control techniques.

Brain Wilson and Terry Melcher, played by Bryan Adrian, a record producer who produced the Beach Boys, The Byrd's and several other well-known tunes that captured the essence of the 1960's sound, came to hear Charlie play.

Wilson had been impressed enough with Charlie sound they put "Cease to Exist" on the B side of one of their records. So with the single already out there and Melcher was his shot at fame. Unfortunately, Charlie wanted him to feel the groove of his family, enjoy the free love community and Melcher wanted to hear him play. After he did, it just wasn't the sound they were looking to push or it was and the whole "family" thing was unnerving. For what ever reason the audition went south.


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This drove Manson over the edge. Matt Smith is stunning as the psychotic leader. He shatters the illusions from his most famous dignified gig he recently played and shows he has shocking depth.

After the murders, which still fascinate five decades later, the brutalization, manic, frenzied style, celebrity involvement, staged scenes, taunting notes to police, all led to a dedicated and intense effort.

The last half of the film moves into the incarceration of Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins and told through a psychologist Karlene Faith, played by Merritt Wever.

Faith, who we find out wrote a book, 'The Long Incarceration of Leslie Van Houton,' spent decades working with these three women, whom we see are deeply brainwashed or simply clinging to the belief of escape.

They paid their entry fee to the place Charlie spoke of, which as it is describes sounds seriously like pieces of great literature woven together to create a fantastical place free of worldly constraints and expectations, and now here they were left behind.

Holidays are used as time indicators and we see during the first years, the women are trying to keep themselves strong through recanting the teachings of Manson. Kernwinkle was the first defector and became a born again Christian and remained throughout her incarceration and death. She moved from one doctrine to another and like Manson, Christianity held.

Susan Atkins also died in prison. The film does not show a repentance from either her or Van Houton.

Karlene Faith said it best when she explained mentally the women were "under a spell" and "did she want to unlock the minds of these women as they would be forced to live everyday with the crimes they committed."


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Van Houton remains incarcerated, allegedly rehabilitated, a model prisoner, and has been granted parole by the California Board of Corrections on numerous times only to be denied by then Governor Jerry Brown. The thought of this women, who as we see in the film, made choices to stay at the Ranch, even when a lover showed up to take her away, made the choice to go with the kill squad on August 10, made the choice to inflict 27 Post-mortem wounds in the already dead Rosemary LaBianca.

Her decisions, were of choice, and she remains incarcerated working the system understanding her choices: in the beginning remain on lockdown or use the system for "betterment." Take college classes, better herself, help other inmates, work the system, work within strict boundaries, no choices other than life inside the cell, alone with her thoughts or life outside the cell. She chose quasi-freedom.

Charlie Says is brilliantly made, the relatively young cast brings a freshness and authenticity to the roles. In addition to nudity, of which there is much (it is the 1960's free love, embrace with abandonment) there is one scene that is caused a verbal reaction of disgust and revulsion. And it isn't the murders, even as distressing as they are, the audience is prepared for those scenes.


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Matt Smith, Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Merritt Wever, Chace Crawford genuinely portray these historical figures with truth, and shocking realism. They abandon themselves into his time and place allowing the characters to become them. They did well.

Charlie Says opens Friday, May 10, 2019. See it.

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