'Charles Manson: The Final Words'
For better or worse, the 20th Century was an age of celebrity serial killers and no one did it like Charles Manson. His death a few months ago is now followed by one last documentary, featuring the final recorded interviews he ever gave. The gross monster was a pop icon, and it only makes sense that he’d get merchandised after death like everyone else.
Charles Manson was a despicable human being who also collaborated with the Beach Boys, lived like a rock star, led a cult, and carved a bloody path through the Hollywood Hills that still sends shivers through the community to this day. It’s almost like he did it all to be famous, if he ever even understood what he was doing at all (a reasonable question).
In the countless streams of Charlie Manson exposés and studies that have filled bookshelves, broadcast slots, and bandwidth for decades, one stands out as the most famous. That would of course be ‘Helter Skelter’. Co-written by attorney Vincent Bugliosi, the book presented the prosecutor’s case and hinged on the theory that Manson was trying to create a race war with his murders. It helped get him convicted and has since been questioned by everyone from nutball Manson supporters who believe he was framed to more thoughtful biographers who have no skin in that game. If James Buddy Day’s new Manson doc has any specific purpose, it’s to openly question the ‘Helter Skelter’ theory and the ways in which the prosecution manufactured evidence to get a conviction. The film is rather convincing in this regard, even catching one interviewee in a lie at one point. Intriguingly, it does seem like the courts cheated Charlie Manson, which is certainly a new wrinkle in this wacky and horrifying tale.
That being said, don’t get scared. It’s not as if this documentary for tries a second to pretend that Charles Manson is a good guy. Far from it, he’s presented as a murderer, a brainwashing cult leader, and a deeply ill man who should stay behind bars. However, he’s also kind of like a broken clock that tells the right time twice a day. Through the longwinded, rambling, and often embarrassing interviews, Manson seems to be correct about some of his wild theories on the world and how he was framed. The guy was born into the world without a chance to succeed and was so abused by the criminal justice system throughout his life that he was destined to die in prison. The fact that he’s a psychopath adds a complication to his claims of martyrdom. His life somehow both proves that the justice system is corrupt and shows how desperately we need such a justice system to keep guys like Charlie Manson off the street.
That’s kind of the subject of ‘Charles Manson: The Final Words’, a documentary that’s both perversely fascinated by Manson and repulsed by him, much like the rest of the world. The film has interviews with people who have genuine reason to empathize with some of Manson’s experiences, and also sycophants obsessed with Manson that we’re intended to shake our head at in disbelief. Some passages are well researched and thought-out, and some are sleazy re-enactments of the crimes that feel like they belong in a deep cable murder porn Reality series. It’s a peculiar mix of worship and repulsion that constantly teeters on the edge of bad taste without ever going too far. This is all embodied by a voiceover narration by Rob Zombie that at times sounds measured and scholarly and at times deliberately sounds like the trailer narration to a grindhouse horror flick.
Perhaps that’s really the only way to handle Charlie Manson in a documentary these days. He’s both one of the most fascinating and repulsive figures of the 20th Century. He’s an important historical figure, a cautionary tale, and a monster who should never have been given a platform that we can’t peel our eyes from. The story endlessly fascinates because it’s an ultimate Hollywood tale that contains everything that has been exploited for entertainment for decades, and it’s also a precise marker of the moment when the idealism of the 1960s crashed into the cynicism of the ’70s. If there’s to be a definitive documentary about the lunatic after his death, this one will do for now.