Serial killer Ted Bundy met girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer in 1969, the same year that Charles Manson would order his “Family” — including followers Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel — to brutally murder seven people.
Both men hold a special — if troubling — place in our collective true crime obsession. Just this year, Bundy has been the subject of a Netflix docu-series, and a narrative feature film, which opened at Sundance to much buzz and fresh controversy. Meanwhile, there are three films either directly about, or related to Manson’s crimes set for release in 2019, including Quentin Tarantino’s much-anticipated Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which will open the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Two of those movies, released just a week apart, claim to shine a spotlight on the women in the lives of those violent men. Only one of them succeeds.
Written and directed by Joe Oberlinger — who also directed the aforementioned docu-series — Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile is based on Kloepfer’s memoir of her time with Bundy. But while the film is bookended with moments from Elizabeth’s (Lily Collins) perspective, most of the run-time is dominated by a charismatic, sexy Ted Bundy, courtesy of Zac Efron. As I wrote in my review, regardless of the filmmaker’s true intentions, no one actually watching this movie could come away from it thinking it was really about Elizabeth.
Not so in the case of Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, screened during last week’s Tribeca Film Festival, and in theaters May 10. Helmed by three women — frequent Harron collaborator Guinevere Turner wrote the script, and Dana Guerin produced — this movie is less interested in Manson than it is the women in his Family, showing the circumstances of a well-trod historical event through the female gaze.
The most important difference between the films lies in the way their stories are structured. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile appears as fascinated with its killer as those who have kept his myth alive all these years. As Ted, Efron gives a compelling performance that sucks the air right out of the room, leaving little oxygen for Elizabeth’s story to flourish. What’s more, we only see him commit one act of violence during the film, despite the fact that Bundy confessed to at least 28 murders during the period that the film covers. Because of that, it’s easy to buy into his act, to be seduced into thinking that there’s no way this clean cut, handsome white man could ever commit such heinous acts. The film doesn’t care to remind us what he is.
Charlie Says, on the other hand, punctuates its narrative with constant reminders of what Manson, and the women who followed him, are best remembered for: The murder of Gary Hinman on July 27, 169, followed by the brutal slaying of actress Sharon Tate and her four friends on August 9, 1969, and of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca just one night later.
Based on a book by Karlene Faith, who worked on therapy sessions with the Manson “girls” as a graduate student, Charlie Says opens with Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray) frantically scrubbing off blood in the shower after stabbing Rosemary LaBianca. And though the film doesn’t exonerate her, or fellow convicted murderers Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon), it does put their crimes in the context of their experience under the influence of a manipulative, and deeply misogynistic cult leader.
Operating on two timelines, the movie toggles between Faith’s sessions with Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Atkins on death row (their sentences were later commuted to life in prison), and flashbacks to their time with Charlie, as they still call him, spouting his philosophy to anyone who will listen.
It’s in these flashbacks that Manson himself appears, played with electric intensity by The Crown’s Matt Smith. Smith is a gifted, charismatic actor, and Harron could easily have fallen into the same trap as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in wanting to revel in his screen presence.
But when we do see him, it’s for a specific purpose: to understand and underscore the hold he had over women, and the tactics he employed to bring and keep them under his control. One scene in particular drives the point home. As the Family sits down to dinner, Manson complains about Atkins’ salad dressing. Rather than apologize, she responds with a witty barb, a reminder that part of her is still independent, and bold. Manson reacts with swift physical and emotional violence, first hitting her, and then expressing his sexual dominance in front of the group. And because she’s been conditioned to equate sexual desire with love, Atkins retreats, and any sense of rebellion is quashed.
These flashbacks, combined with quiet scenes of these women desperately trying to hold onto Manson’s dogma in prison, even as they start to realize they might have been fooled, paint a compelling portrait of the lasting psychological effects of domestic abuse and systematic brainwashing. “We show them as individuals in their journeys toward getting un-Charlied,” Turner recently told Vanity Fair.
Still, Charlie Says isn’t perfect. As The Wrap points out, the film buys a little too much into the real Van Houten’s story of redemption. Up for her 22nd parole attempt in 2019, she has spent years trying to reinvent her image, expressing remorse and horror at the actions that landed her in prison. While Harron’s film makes efforts to be even-handed in its portrayal, it ultimately accepts Van Houten’s version as fact, rather than seeking to go deeper. And yet, the fact that Turner herself grew up in the Lyman Family cult, started by musician Mel Lyman in 1968, and with similar disparate gender dynamics as Manson’s cult, gives her interpretation extra credence.
Is it fair to label these women as victims when seven human beings are dead at their hands? Charlie Says makes a strong case for an even grayer area: That perhaps these women can be victims and guilty of horrific, unpardonable crimes. It’s an unsettling thought. But at least, unlike the exaltation of Ted Bundy’s abundant charm, it’s a new one.