Being a fan of horror, naturally, I have done my homework on serial killers and real life murderers. Maybe that comes with the territory of this genre, or maybe I’m just a weirdo. That being said, I admittedly tend to avoid biopics based on real life killers because, I don’t know, maybe I feel bad being entertained by “true crime.”
I kept hearing great things about Brandon Slagle’s “House of Manson,” a Charles Manson biopic that tells his story from his childhood to his arrest, so I cautiously gave it a viewing. I have read a great deal on Manson and his “family,” and the strongest selling point of “House of Manson” is that they hit his story on the nose. This is an impressive film, and without a doubt the strongest real-crime horror film I have ever seen. It literally gave me nightmares, and that’s no lie. It’s an extremely powerful portrait of a man who slowly realizes that he’s not quite in control of his own destiny, so he creates his own.
The film opens with a police raid on the Manson family compound, and Manson’s subsequent arrest. From there, he begins telling investigators his story in every grisly detail. It’s a traditional “flashback” type set-up that works very well in a film like this and aides in the growth of characters. It’s interesting to see the stark contrast between pre-cult Manson and post-arrest.
Ryan Kiser, who gives an absolutely crushing performance, portrays Manson. At first I wasn’t sure what to think, as I’m so used to the Charles Manson newsbytes and images that I associate with him. But Kiser excels in this role by doing the one thing that I honestly wasn’t expecting: he brings humanity to Charles Manson. He reminds us that before the Tate murders, before Helter Skelter, before the crimes he committed were ever even conceived, that Charles Manson was a real person, with real feelings and real dreams. It’s when these dreams are ended that he begins to truly lose himself, and these are the scenes where Kiser really shines. His character morphs and grows into something sinister as the movie progresses, and by the end he shows us exactly who Manson truly is: a liar, a manipulator and a coward.
But the film is called “House of Manson,” not simply “Manson,” so while Kiser is the engine car that keeps this train barreling down the track, it’s the ensemble around him that really seals the deal. Each actor, including Tristan Risk, Erin Marie Hogan, and Reid Warner (to name just a few), portrays one of Manson’s followers by bringing a unique character to the table, really fleshing out these people and giving us insight into their troubled lives. This is an ensemble film in all senses of the word, and the ensemble is terrific, full of actors that go there and aren’t afraid to make bold choices. Some major props go to actress Devanny Pinn who gives a particularly chilling performance as the doey-eyed and deeply disturbed Susan Atkins.
Slagle expertly directs this film, drawing so much raw emotion from his performers that I couldn’t help but keep my eyes peeled to the screen, even when it gets nasty…and it does get nasty. The majority of this film plays like a character drama but when the crimes are committed Slagle doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. It’s horrifying and tragic to watch, but at the same time does not feel exploitative. It’s simply a portrayal of events that unfortunately happened in real life. Slagle’s choice of jumping through time, assisted by some terrific editing and a killer soundtrack, aid to the overall success and feel of this film.
Horror lovers, history buffs and true crime fans will all find something to take away from this film, I highly recommend it. When all is said and done, “House of Manson” is a superb character study and terrifying glimpse into the most infamous killing spree in American history.