For some it was the riot at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert, for others the election of Richard Nixon as US president. But the death of the freelove dream undoubtedly came closer when one of its most aberrant advocates, Charles Manson, acquired the notoriety he so desperately sought.
In the summer of 1969, the career criminal, Beatles obsessive and one-time associate of the Beach Boys instructed members of his “Family”, a group of young dropouts and runaways, to commit nine murders including that of pregnant actress Sharon Tate. “He confided in me about how groovy it was killing people,” says Paul Watkins, Manson’s lieutenant, in the new two-part documentary Manson: the Lost Tapes.
But what fresh light can be cast on this ofttold story? It was a conundrum producer Simon Andreae wrestled with for years, until the looming 50th anniversary of the killings forced his hand. As Quentin Tarantino and Mary Harron prepared fictional versions of the story (the latter starring Matt Smith as Manson), Andreae happened on a long-forgotten 1973 documentary by Robert Hendrickson.
Initially intending to make a drama about the crucifixion of Christ, Hendrickson had been put in touch with the Family by an apostate member, Mark Ross. Manson, awaiting trial and wanting a record of his grim actions, gave Hendrickson permission to film on the Family’s Californian compound.
The result, Manson, was Oscar-nominated but drew scathing reviews. Sensationalist and drowning in psychedelic effects, it could generously be said to be of its time. The footage, shot between 1969 and 1973, was however both eerily intimate and insightful about the radicalisation of two dozen whitebread, middle-class kids. As we ponder today how regular citizens can be brainwashed into committing murder, there are contemporary echoes. Andreae says, “We’re asking an eternal question about human nature: to what extent can we make hearts dark?”
Actress Sharon Tate with her husband Roman Polansky visiting the set of Rosemary’s Baby in 1967 (Getty)
The earlier film, Manson, showed bright-eyed but dark-hearted youngsters spouting cod philosophy – and much worse. It was duly banned in 1975 when Family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, charged with attempting to murder then-President Gerald Ford, protested it could prejudice potential juries. She was convicted anyway.
Her concern was unsurprising, given the film showed her declaring “anybody that has ever gone against us, or would ever step in front of us, will be taken care of ”. Fellow Family member Sandra Good opines that “when somebody needs to be killed, there’s no wrong, you do it, then you move on”, as both cradle rifles. Paul Watkins brandishes a flute.
Deciding to make a less sensational update, Andreae was convinced Hendrickson must have hours of unused material. He hired an investigator to search for the man and his work, both of which had apparently disappeared. “Nothing happened for several weeks then, in autumn 2016, I got a text saying, ‘I think I’ve found what you’re looking for’: 100-plus hours of 16mm film and dozens of hours of audio tape, most never seen or heard before. It was an extraordinary cache,” he says.
Hendrickson had died just two weeks earlier, leaving his family at a loss regarding his archive. “All this footage had been hidden away because part of his family worried the remaining members of the Family might come after them if they knew it existed,” Andreae says. “But they didn’t want to destroy it because it was unique culturally and forensically, and financially valuable.”
Given permission to catalogue the materials, Andreae compiled his documentary using extracts from the original film, together with unseen footage and contemporary interviews.
The latter took time to secure. While the likes of FBI criminal profiler John Douglas (inspiration for Netflix’s thriller Mindhunter) were happy to talk, former Manson acolytes required more persuasion. “They could see we’d made responsible films, and were intrigued, if somewhat trepidatious, to see the tapes,” says Andreae.
Susan Denise Atkins, (left), Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten (right), laugh after receiving the death sentence for their part in the Tate-LaBianca killing at the order of Charles Manson (Getty)
He secured new interviews with the Family’s youngest member, Dianne Lake (aka Snake); Catherine Share, the matriarch also known as Gypsy who, when asked what she felt about Manson in the original film, replied “all the love I have”; and Bobby Beausoleil, who is still incarcerated for the murder of Gary Hinman, which preceded the others.
All three are repentant, says Andreae. “Beausoleil says it destroyed his soul and wishes he’d taken his victim to hospital. With Gypsy and Dianne, it’s very clear to them now that Manson was hoodwinking them and selling them a dream. They have led relatively regular lives since then. Everyone knew Dianne in her community as the church lady with the fun hats, and when she came out as Snake, it just didn’t compute.”
In the documentary, watching footage of her teenage self, Lake whispers, “Anybody watching this now would think I was a monster.” Share, meanwhile, is shocked by film of Manson interviewed in prison while he awaited trial (Hendrickson had sneaked in a microphone and camera). “Oh, my God,” she gasps as he rambles, seemingly incoherent. “He’s asking us to break him out.”
Andreae adds, “All you normally see of Manson is him looking dishevelled and humiliated during his trial, or acting up to his reputation afterwards. [Here] we have footage of Manson the cult leader – and you feel some of the charisma and potency that the Family found so seductive.”
An interview with Manson himself, who died in late 2017, was never seriously considered. “The last time he was interviewed for television in 1984, he had become this weird caricature,” says Andreae, who is aware of Manson’s penchant for self-mythology and media manipulation. “I’m not sure how much he would have added to the story.”
The new documentary contains troubling revelations about Manson, however. His mounting physical and sexual abuse of Family members in the run-up to the murders has been well reported in the past, but here the extent of his forward planning is also revealed as Watson says: “Charlie told me that one day in the mountains above Beverly Hills, there would be a terrible murder, bodies all over the place, blood on the walls.”
Asked how long this was before the murders, he replies: “About three months.” Andreae says this shows “the tension between the peace and love [Manson] was preaching to his followers and the death and murder he was planning”. He admits that his documentary can be nightmarishly intense. “You feel you’re being taken down the rabbit hole. The challenge is: if I had been one of these people, could this have happened to me?”
Manson: the Lost Tapes airs Thursday 27th September at 9.00pm on ITV