Last week, Serial Killer Cinema examined movies based directly on infamous hippie-era cult leader Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca massacres perpetrated in August 1969 by his Manson Family disciples.
As Charlie and his Family have remained pop-culture wellsprings ever since, numerous other films have arisen that may not specifically name Manson and his acolytes, but they still clearly emanate from the same sordid and sanguine saga.
Ranging from the fact-based TV movie Helter Skelter (1976) to the jagged-edged mash-up of grindhouse and arthouse stylings in The Manson Family (2003) to the thoughtful indie drama Manson Family Vacation (2015), the previously reviewed films that expressly invoke Manson and the murders often approach the topic with at least some degree of seriousness or respect (although certainly not always).
No such (relative) high roads abound, however, when it comes to movies that just dip into various Manson Family details for sensational screen shocks (e.g., a Satanic/messianic, long-haired, love-and-death guru; free-loving flower children turned fork-wielding psychos; etc.). Those serve as today’s subject.
As a result, the following films tend to be cheaper and more tawdry than officially Manson-affiliated motion pictures. In that sense, then — and also because the Family’s actual victims are not invoked — these flicks tend to be more fun … depending on your idea of that concept.
I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970)
I Drink Your Blood rages as one of the all-time most entertainingly berserk exploitation film blowouts. It’s a foaming-mouthed, gore-spraying tsunami of insanity about a devil-worshipping hippie cabal whose hostile, long-haired members mutate into flesh-famished fiends after consuming meat pies injected with a rabid dog’s blood.
Manson-esque occult conduit Horace Bones (Bhaksar Roy Chowdury) opens the insanity by overseeing a ritual and announcing to his followers: “Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head! Drink from his cup; pledge yourselves. And together, we’ll all freak out!”
Freak out, they do. What follows from there is an absolute must for anyone interested in how intense and off-the-wall Mansonmania got at the height of the controversy, as well as for fans of beyond-the-fringe cinema.
I Drink Your Blood uproariously earns the descriptor “one of a kind,” even as it repeatedly played theaters on a double bill with the retitled and entirely unrelated zombie flick, I Eat Your Skin (1964).
The movie gets appropriately treated as the crackpot gem it is on the absolutely superlative special edition Blu-ray put out by Grindhouse Releasing.
THE LOVE-THRILL MURDERS aka SWEET SAVIOR (1971)
Clean-cut 1950s heartthrob Troy Donahue takes a decidedly different role in The Love-Thrill Murders, playing an unmistakably Manson-style freak guru whose devotees commit atrocities in his name all over New York City.
Initially unleashed on the public as Sweet Savior, the movie garnered no small degree of criticism upon release. While some observers decried the movie as tasteless, while out doing promotions, Donahue himself told film critic Rex Reed:
“I play Moon, a religious creep who murders a lot of people, a real heavy trip. But I don’t want anyone to think I’m playing it in some phony exploitation flick that takes advantage of the Manson case to make a fast buck. I don’t like many things, man, but I dig this picture…. We’re trying to show both sides of the problem. The Hollywood glamour society is as guilty as the depraved hippie cults. They pick up people on the Sunset Boulevard and tease them. When they made fun of Manson they picked on the wrong guy. I was up at the Tate house. It was a freaky scene. Sure I met Manson — at the beach, playing volleyball.”
THE NIGHT GOD SCREAMED (1971)
While surrounded in the woods by his hippie hangers-on, Manson stand-in Billy Joe (Michael Sugich) proclaims to God that his flock “were just a bunch of sinners, but I saved them because I made them see that using dope was the way to turn on to you.”
The Billy Joe Cult soon thereafter declares war on Willis and Fanny Pierce (Alex Nicol and Jeanne Crain), a religious couple so devout they keep a Christ-sized cross on top of their car. Willis ends up crucified. Billy Joe gets busted for the crime and his disciples rain terror down on Fanny and a teenage church group for the remainder of the film.
The Night God Screamed is passable drive-in trash with some amusing and even intriguing moments. Alas, it never lives up to that alarming title (just imagine the movie that could!).
THE DEATHMASTER (1972)
Robert Quarry stars in The Deathmaster as Khorda, a vampire who surrounds himself with hippie acolytes. It’s a role startlingly similar to the one Quarry played in psychedelic bloodsucker hit Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and its sequel, The Return of Count Yorga (1971). Deathmaster takes the Yorga formula and essentially just ratchets up the Manson factor.
The long-haired, bearded Khorda washes ashore in his coffin on Santa Monica, and then sets about corrupting the local L.A. flower children into his bloodletting puppets.
All told, The Deathmaster supplies no dearth of B-movie pleasures, including the weirdness of hearing several folk songs performed by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, the one-hit wonder who busts out big again every Halloween with “The Monster Mash.”
TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973)
Dune-buggy hippies from Hell antagonize an all-American family just out for some seaside camping in Terror on the Beach, a camp classic prime-time TV production from the fledgling days of ABC’s Movie of the Week.
Dennis Weaver (the cowboy detective on McCloud) and Estelle Parsons (Rosanne’s mom on Roseanne) play the besieged parents; Susan Dey (Laurie from The Partridge Family) and Kristoffer Tabori (lots of character roles) are their teenage offspring.
Aside from employing the Manson Family’s signature means of transport (along with an awesome vintage fire engine), the belligerent, often masked long-hairs jabber their “off the pigs” philosophy while surrounding the family’s camper and subjecting those therein to a long day and night of torment.
Snuff itself is the retitled and amended version of a cheap Manson-inspired splatter movie from Argentina initially called Slaughter. However tawdry the film gets with its violent depiction of a hippie murder cult, it’s ultimately too dull to inspire much emotion, let alone vast and enduring anger. That’s where husband-and-wife exploitation mavens Michael and Roberta Findlay stepped in.
The Findlays shot and added a scene to the end of Slaughter in which a crew films the ludicrously fake-looking dismemberment and murder of an actress on a movie set.
In the mid-1970s, rumors of “snuff films” — movies that depicted actual human killings that then played underground screenings — captivated the public.
With the new footage added to the old movie, the Findlays renamed the film Snuff and promoted it in New York City with a campaign implying that regular movie-going audiences could now buy a ticket to witness a real murder on screen.
Snuff’s distributors also hired actors to wave pickets and mount “protests” outside theaters showing the film. In short order, the feminist activist group Women Against Pornography took over in Times Square and demonstrated against Snuff for real — even after Variety officially exposed what anyone with eyes and ears would clearly understand: that the “murder” was a hoax.
So outraged did a vocal public grow that New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau had to officially state that Snuff’s big selling point was “nothing more than conventional trick photography — as is evident to anyone who sees the movie.” He also added that the actress in question was “alive and well.”
All that is infinitely more interesting than anything that’s actually in Snuff, Manson connection or no Manson connection.
THE STRANGERS (2008)
Writer-director Bryan Bertino won acclaim and a cult following with The Strangers, his moody horror take on an extended nightmare of a home invasion. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman star as an unfortunate couple that falls prey to two female and one male young intruders in eerie masks.
One aggressor is described as “Dollface,” another as “Pin-Up Girl,” and the third, who wears essentially a burlap sack over his head, is simply called “Man in Mask.” They are somehow Family-esque.
Bertino has stated that the movie came to him after reading Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive legal account of the Manson Family murders. Numerous observers have pointed out, as well, that The Strangers resembles the gruesome Keddie Cabin Murders of 1981.
THE LAST SHIFT (2014)
Charles Manson is a ghost in the direct-to-video quickie, The Last Shift. Actually, he’s called John Michael Paymon (Joshua Mikel), and he won’t go quietly.
Paymon and two followers who worshipped him as The King of Hell happened to commit suicide in a police precinct house one year prior to the first-ever night on the job for rookie cop Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy). She does not enjoy an uneventful introductory night on the job.
The antics begin with the spirits writing “SOW” on a wall in somebody’s blood. From there, Officer Loren has to contend with the Satanic spooks in a supernatural, Charlie-juiced spin on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).
WOLVES AT THE DOOR (2016)
Katie Cassidy leads a cast through Wolves at the Door. The 1969-set “microbudget” recreation of the Manson Family murders never actually says “Manson,” but still depicts a group of well-to-do, hippie-chic Hollywood residents succumbing to the homicidal rage of a counterculture murder cult.
Wolves at the Door runs a minuscule one-hour, 13 minutes. Even in such a truncated form, the film inspired so much confidence in Warner Brothers that the studio dumped it in India for a quick release last year and has no such plans to follow suit stateside. Don’t look for it soon!
Main photo: I Drink Your Blood (1971)/I Eat Your Skin (1964) double feature release poster