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Neil Rawles
Writing Credits:

He was the mastermind of the most notorious murders in U.S. history, a crazed guru who terrified the world and plunged the city of Los Angeles into a state of paranoia and panic. This two-hour docudrama from History takes viewers deep inside Charles Manson's twisted world of hate, fear, and mind control to tell the story of how one man transformed a harmless group of hippies into a gang of brutal murderers. Intertwining first-person accounts with rare archive footage, Manson looks back at the nine months leading up to and including the brutal murder of Sharon Tate, the Manson family's most famous victim, four decades after her bludgeoning. It features key Manson family member Linda Kasabian, who was at the scene of the Sharon Tate murders as lookout and getaway driver, in her first interview in 20 years, as well as interviews with fellow Manson family member Catherine Share; Vincent Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor who wrote "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders"; and Deborah Tate, Sharon Tate's sister.

Rated NR

Widescreen 1.78:1
English Dolby Stereo 2.0
Not Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $19.95
Release Date: 9/29/2009

• None


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

Manson (2009)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 11, 2009)

Anniversaries often prompt new examinations of events, and that’s the root of 2009’s Manson. The docu-drama looks at the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders and gives us a new take on Charles Manson and his followers.

As the show progresses, we learn of the composition and functioning of the “Manson Family”, primarily through Kasabian’s eyes. We also get biographical aspects of Charles Manson’s life, key members of the Family, Manson’s philosophies and his control over his subjects, their criminal enterprises, the Tate/LaBianca killings and their aftermath.

Throughout the show, we hear from a mix of sources. The show features Manson cult members Linda Kasabian and Catherine Share, chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and Sharon Tate’s sister Debra.

In addition to the comments from the folks listed above, Manson includes dramatic recreations. While we get some archival material, usually the program leaps to actors as they portray the characters and situations the show discusses.

That side of things gives Manson a distinctive flavor, but it doesn’t make the show successful. It relies too much on these reenactments and I’m not sure they add anything to the experience. Indeed, they often detract from the material because they can seem rather cheesy. None of the actors ruin the piece, but none of them provide particularly good turns either. Most of the performances veer down the hammy side of the street, and they can be too goofy to succeed.

That’s especially true of Adam Wilson’s Manson. Granted, that’s a hard part, as it must be tough to depict Manson’s insanity but not make him totally over the top. Unfortunately, Wilson fully embraces “Nutbag Charlie” and doesn’t bring much balance to the program. A better actor would demonstrate the charm and charisma Manson’s devotees cite, but we don’t see that side of him here. He’s just a wild-eyed kook.

All of this is too bad, as obviously Manson tells a fascinating story. If the events depicted lacked much to make them compelling, we wouldn’t still be curious about them 40 years later, but the documentary feels like a mishmash. It has too many dramatic reenactments to provide a satisfying documentary, but it doesn’t give us enough historical narrative to provide a strong exploration of the facts.

The documentary elements definitely fare the best. On the surface, the absence of a broad array of speakers seems to be a negative, but it’s not. Via Tate, Kasabian and Share, we get folks closely involved in the events, so they offer a good first-person perspective.

Bugliosi brings a slight outsider’s viewpoint since he didn’t know any of the participants until after the murders, but he certainly boasts as good an understanding of the various facts as probably anyone alive. Not only did he prosecute the case, but also he wrote Helter Skelter, arguably the definitive book about the events. I suppose the program could’ve added additional commentators, but it’s hard to fault the ones we get or think that others would’ve contributed a whole lot more to the show.

The various speakers act as the best aspect of Manson, though I don’t think they’re enough to make it a particularly good program. The dramatic reenactments just don’t work very well, and they rob of the material of some vitality. Given that we’ve already gotten a couple of Helter Skelter adaptations, I’m not sure why the show’s producers thought the “docu-drama” approach was the way to go. It gives Manson something of a “been there, done that” feel and makes it less satisfying as a documentary.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio C+/ Bonus F

Manson appears in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has NOT been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite the lack of anamorphic enhancement, the transfer was acceptable.

Sharpness usually seemed fine. The program consisted of a mix of dramatic reenactments and modern “talking head” interviews. These could occasionally look a little rough and blocky, but they generally appeared reasonably accurate and concise. Mild issues connected to jagged edges and shimmering occurred, but no signs of edge enhancement occurred. Source flaws weren’t an issue, though some light digital artifacts gave the show a bit of a grainy look.

Colors were satisfactory. The program featured a natural palette, and the hues looked clear and concise. Blacks were fairly dark and tight, and low-light shots seemed acceptably distinctive. While this was never a dynamic transfer, it remained perfectly watchable.

I thought the Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtrack of Manson was also acceptable. The soundfield had little going for it. Music showed decent stereo imaging, and a few effects spread out across the front. These were minor, though, and didn’t add much to the experience. That said, a documentary like this didn’t need a dynamic soundscape, so I didn’t mind the bland presentation.

Audio quality was fine. Speech sounded natural and concise, without edginess or other problems. Music seemed full and rich, and effects were decent; they didn’t demand much of the mix, but they appeared accurate enough. This was a perfectly serviceable soundtrack for a documentary.

Should you expect extras? Nope, as the disc comes with nothing.

After 40 years, Charles Manson remains a fascinating figure, and Manson offers a look at his life and times. While it provides some good information and benefits from interesting first-person perspectives, the use of dramatic recreations doesn’t work to its advantage. Those sequences instead seem somewhat silly and just remind us that the show would’ve fared better if it stayed with a more standard documentary approach. The DVD features decent picture and audio but lacks any supplements. This ends up as an acceptable Manson primer, but I think you’ll find better programs on that subject.

Viewer Film Ratings: 5 Stars Number of Votes: 4
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