While not a horror movie by any means, Manson Family Vacation piqued my interests during the 2015 SXSW Film Festival due to its subject matter (the notorious Charles Manson) and the fact that it co-starred Saw alum Tobin Bell. And while I had no real expectations going into the film, what I came away with was one of the more surprisingly ingenious and heartfelt examinations of Manson and his continuing influence I’ve ever seen as well as a story that does an incredible job of intelligently deconstructing the idea of what family really means.
For his directorial debut, writer/director J. Davis introduces us to a hapless loner by the name of Conrad (Linas Phillips) who travels to Los Angeles to visit his little brother, Nick (Jay Duplass), the sensible one of the pair. Adopted when he was just an infant, Conrad has always been a bit of a family outcast, focusing his energies on his unique hobbies like creating weird pieces of artwork and immersing himself into the world of Charles Manson. Conrad’s only passing through LA though as he’s taken a mysterious job out in Death Valley but before he leaves for his new gig, he insists that Nick takes him around town to tour the Manson Family murder sites. At first, the stops are harmless but as both Nick and Conrad move forward with their tour, things take a weird turn as we learn the truth behind Conrad’s new employment, how it relates to his fascination with Manson and witness how these revelations only further complicates the relationship between the two brothers.
For anyone who has ever been fascinated with the lore of Charles Manson, Manson Family Vacation offers up uniquely compelling story that’s scattered with fun Easter eggs for all the aficionados out there, including visits to several murder sites like Cielo Drive, the LaBianca house as well as a stop at El Coyote restaurant, where Sharon Tate enjoyed her last meal before her senseless death. For those who may not necessarily know much about Manson and his infamous legacy, there’s much to enjoy about Manson Family Vacation as well- the performances featured in the film are all wonderfully nuanced with great comedic/dramatic timing to them, the script is well-constructed without ever trying to vilify anyone for their beliefs (regardless of how unusual they may be) and overall, Davis shows great promise as a filmmaker to watch with his thoughtful and poignant exploration of the power of family ties.
A total unexpected treat, Manson Family Vacation is highly recommended for those of you looking for something outside of the genre realm and it’s also worth noting that Bell’s performance in the film as the enigmatic leader known as “Blackbird” alone made the film worth watching. It’s rare that anything associated with Charles Manson can put a smile on your face but Davis’ confident debut does just that, making for a surprisingly sweet and thought-provoking cinematic journey.
Movie Score: 4/5