This film about the Manson Family women promises to explore cult psychology

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Moya Crockett
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Charlie Says picks up the story of the women involved in the Manson murders, several years after they’ve been imprisoned. 

I’ve written before about why I understand the ongoing fascination with the Manson Family murders. In August 1969, followers of cult leader Charles Manson killed eight people in California. It’s a deeply disturbing, shocking and sad story, but it also contains the trappings of a Hollywood film and the themes of a tragic play: violent and/or damaged men; beautiful and/or dangerous women; power; exploitation; hero worship; drugs; sex; death. The world at large continues to be fixated with these things, and there is also an enduring cultural obsession with the Sixties, a decade that’s arguably romanticised more than any other. This, combined with the fact that several of the women involved with the Manson Family are still alive, ensures that we’re pulled back to the story, again and again.

The entertainment industry also loves an anniversary, which explains why several feature films about the Manson Family are due to hit cinemas this summer – the 50th anniversary of the murders. Two of these movies have already attracted significant controversy. Psychological horror The Haunting of Sharon Tate stars Hillary Duff as Tate, the actor and model who was among those murdered by Manson’s followers. The film has been roundly condemned by Tate’s sister Debra, who called the project “classless” and “exploitative”.

Next up is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which will star Margot Robbie as Tate and Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as her fictional neighbours. While Debra Tate has been warm about Tarantino’s “vision” for the film, others have expressed reservations about how a director known for films that glamorise violence and objectify women will handle the story of the Manson murders. Jameela Jamil has also voiced her anger that Emile Hirsch – who was convicted for aggravated assault in 2015 after throttling film executive Daniele Bernfeld at a nightclub – has been cast in Tarantino’s film.

But there is a third film about the Manson Family in the works. And it sounds and looks as though it will be considerably more nuanced – and much more interested in telling real women’s stories – than either The Haunting of Sharon Tate or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Charlie Says is directed by Mary Harron and written by Guinevere Turner, who have previously worked together on two films: the cult classic American Psycho (2000) and 2005 biopic The Notorious Bettie Page. Rather than glorifying Manson (played here by The Crown’s Matt Smith), or focusing excessively on the murders themselves, Harron and Turner were more interested in exploring the stories of the women sucked into Manson’s orbit.

Indeed, the film’s most central figure is arguably not Manson, but Karlene Faith, a feminist academic who specialises in the women’s prison system. Several years after the Manson murders take place, Faith (played by Merritt Weaver) visits “the Manson girls” – Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) – in prison, with the goal of helping them come to terms with what they did. Given that all three of the women are – to varying degrees – still under Manson’s spell, this isn’t an easy task.

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According to Turner, Faith’s work with Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins provided a new way of telling the grimly familiar tale of the Manson murders.

“I was kind of struggling with how to tell a fresh story, and then I found Karlene Faith on Facebook, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is something we haven’t heard before,’” she told Variety. “It was a new perspective, and a perfect way to humanise the girls, because she met them as we always saw them – these sort of interchangeable zombie-hippie girls.”

Turner added: “As a woman filmmaker and as a writer, the toughest thing [to do] is to take the people who are actually guilty, and in prison, and try to humanise them in a way that’s neither shying away from what they did or a work of advocacy. There’s a very delicate balance about all that.”

Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner in 2006 

A male director was initially attached to direct the film, but left the project after learning that Turner was planning on focusing on the women’s lives in prison. Harron had already read Turner’s script, and told her that she would gladly direct the film.

“I was reading [the script] as a friend as I was really intrigued when she said she was going to include the perspective of the women in prison three years after the murders and what happened to them, because no one has covered that,” Harron told The Upcoming.

“I said I’ll make it, I love the women-in-prison stuff, and I find Karlene a really wonderful character.”

However, Harron stressed that she wasn’t interested in advocating for the women featured in the film. “For everybody looking at the movie, you don’t want just to stereotype them as monsters and something other to us,” she said. “I wanted to look at them and see my common humanity with them. But at the same time, I wanted the audience to both have sympathy and face the reality [of what they did].”

Charlie Says is set for release in UK cinemas on 17 May, 2019.

Images: IFC Films / Getty Images