Quentin Tarantino's newest film, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is easily the best of its type exploring the cultural moment immediately leading up to the killings that claimed the lives of actress Sharon Tate and various others at the hands of Charles Manson and his followers. However, its far from the first. Ever since that dark day in 1969, filmmakers have been fixated on the murders and their aftermath, seeing them as proof of America's dark heart or a way to make a quick buck. Below, we list ten of the most notable films ever made about the Manson Murders.
10 Charlie Says (2019)
One of the few films to fully explore the psychological damage wrought by Manson on his followers, this female written and directed film trains its cinematic eye on the three women who committed murder for him--Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten. Picking up years after the slaughter at Cielo Drive, the three remain fiercely dedicated to the cult leader. Just when it seems as if they’ll live out their lives misguidedly believing in Charlie and his cosmic destiny, a graduate student enters the picture who means to rehabilitate the women.
Written by Guinevere Turner and helmed by American Psycho director Mary Harron, Charlie Says is a feminist take on a story that’s too often been hijacked by the charismatic madman at its center. Meditative, thought-provoking, and delicately wrought, Charlie Says rewards your investment in the unpleasant material by humanizing three women who may, in a certain light, also be considered victims of Charles Manson’s alluring madness.
9 Helter Skelter (1976)
Airing over two nights in 1976, this film based on Vincent Bugliosi’s best-seller Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders was one of the most-watched television events of the time. A sure draw for audiences who had witnessed the dark drama of the event that had closed the door on the “free love” era in real time, the film is still one of the most successfully unsettling depictions of the events leading up to the murders and the trial that followed. Though it gets points off for the limitations placed on it by the tv format of the time, Steve Railsback remains the greatest performer to assume the role of Manson, and Helter Skelter is still the clearest-eyed chronicle of the case and a cultural artifact in its own right.
8 Manson Family Vacation (2015)
In this comic oddity, Jay Duplass (brother of Mark) plays Nick, a conservative everyman who finds his life upended when his troublesome adopted brother, Conrad (Linas Phillips) turns up out of the blue. Conrad, a Manson Family obsessive and crime junkie asks his brother to join him on a trip into the desert outside of LA to locate and explore the stomping grounds of Charlie and his cultish family.
The film’s creation came from writer/director J Davis’ own personal fixations on Manson and his followers, and his dear friend Duplass’ negative reaction when he found out about it. Thus, Manson Family Vacation isn’t just about the relationship between two disparate siblings, but it also questions why the case enthralls to so many, and why the term family means such radically different things to different people.
7 Manson Family Movies (1984)
More of a curio than a satisfying feature, Manson Family Movies is a lo-fi attempt to recreate the goings-on at Spahn Ranch leading up to the Tate-LaBianca killings. An early example of a “found-footage” feature, filmmaker John Aes-Nihil mixes dramatic restagings shot in the real locations where Manson and his followers lived with legitimate recordings they took themselves. The result is an exploitative depiction of the events in the true Mondo Cinema fashion.
6 The Manson Family (2003)
A more contemporary film retreading the same material as Helter Skelter, but using some post-modern techniques to breathe new life into the story with psychedelic imagery and exhaustingly outre stylizations. Fascinatingly, The Manson Family was filmed over a period of fifteen years, allowing the actors who appear in the “real life” footage to appear again, more than a decade older, in the film’s faux-documentary interview segments. Imperfect, overwhelming, yet fascinating, The Manson Family is one of the most unique and compelling contemporary treatments of the material.
5 The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019)
Rising star Sharon Tate (Hillary Duff) is left alone in her California home while her husband, celebrated filmmaker Roman Polanski is away in Europe. Pregnant, fragile, and dogged by visions, Tate finds herself deeply disturbed by the darkness that seems to be gathering on the horizon.
Though the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and her friends by the Manson Family has been exploited in so many films and in so many offensive ways it makes one’s head spin, The Haunting of Sharon Tate marks a new low. Turning the tale into a run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller is bad enough, but adding a supernatural edge to the proceedings feels totally disrespectful, especially when the script and performances are so uniformly terrible. The totally wrong-headed final twist is a sour cherry atop this revolting sundae.
4 Leslie, My Name Is Evil (2009)
It's surprisingly rare that one of Manson’s followers gets star treatment, which is why Leslie, My Name Is Evil gets a strong recommendation despite its obvious shortcomings.
Exploring the life of Leslie Van Houten (Kristen Hager) from youth to life in the cult to trial, writer/director Reginald Harkema attempts to mold his story into a dark comedy, drawing connections between the Manson murders, Vietnam, and the My Lai Massacre in incendiary moments of bold political satire. Unfortunately, it's all a tad too silly to land, and though the political messaging is sharp, the film works best as a campy take on an all-too-nasty moment in American history.
3 Bigger Than The Beatles (2017)
When Dennis Wilson (Joseph Andrew Schneider) creative genius behind the Beach Boys shepherds his new friend into the Los Angeles music scene, he gets more than he bargained for.
Based on a short, Bigger Than The Beatles tells the true story of how Charles Manson, a failed musician, almost made it big, and how his rejection by Hollywood may have been one of the biggest factors in his eventual turn towards darkness and bloodshed.
2 Honky Holocaust (2014)
What if Manson’s plan had worked? That’s the question that serves as the inspiration for this jaw-droppingly un-PC alternative history actioner, in which Charles Manson (Thomas Delcarpio) actually managed to start the race-war he insisted was coming before disappearing underground for three decades. Upon resurfacing, his daughter (Maria Natapov) and the remnants of his clan discover that the world is now run by African-Americans and that Caucasians are marginalized and treated as subhuman.
Though obviously incendiary, the film was picked up by Troma, so you already know what kind of film you’re getting. Honky Holocaust is filled with categorically terrible performances and over-the-top violence that completely distract you from how horrifically offensive it should all be. That said, this ridiculously off-color post-apocalyptic exploitation flick does manage to make a few worthy points about bigotry, even if the strokes are awfully broad.
1 The Cult (1971)
A.K.A The Manson Massacre, this grindhouse feature is of the same breed as Tom Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer and Dave A. Adams’ Another Son of Sam, low-budget shockers that grabbed inspiration from headlines with little attention paid to the reality or facts of the stories they were telling.
Fabulously named director Kentucky Jones turns Charles (or Invar as he’s called here) into a monkish lunatic who sleeps in a coffin and seems to have been driven to madness by an incestuous relationship with his mother (Russ Meyer favorite, Uschi Digard). The plot is an afterthought; the film’s primary purpose being to play up the long-debunked satanic angle of the killings and show off some gratuitous violence and nudity. The Cult obviously isn't for all (or, any) tastes, but it’s an interesting gewgaw from the drive-in days.