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“MANSON FAMILY VACATION” (Movie Review)

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Written and directed by J. Davis and currently available on Netflix, MANSON FAMILY VACATION explores the multifaceted idea of family, as two brothers attempt to reconnect and forgive the past through radical understanding. The film also explores the semiotics of Charles Manson—the idea of an infamous clan of outcasts—and the myth of the changeling child. Merging these concepts seamlessly, MANSON FAMILY VACATION penetrates the heart and tells its audience, in a dark and humorous way, that it understands.

Conrad (Linas Phillips) returns home to visit his stepbrother Nick (Jay Duplass) and Nick’s family in California. Conrad has sold off his worldly possessions to pursue a new, vaguely outlined destiny, after a lifetime spent as an oddball and usually as a family embarrassment, and Nick is shocked—but not too shocked—at Conrad’s spontaneous act. Nick is Conrad’s stepbrother not through remarriage, but via adoption, and he has never been less than mean to Conrad. It’s always easier to smite what we can’t understand—a point that does bother Nick, but he’d rather shield himself than truly explore what Conrad is about. Saying sorry would negate “tough love.”

Conrad nonetheless convinces Nick to accompany him on a trip that might seem strange for most audiences, but not necessarily to the genre crowd: a tour of the Manson Family murder sites. Nick is understandably concerned about his brother’s obsession with Manson, but in the interest of healing their years of estrangement, and with his wife’s encouragement, he goes along on the adventure. Their journey leads Conrad to an encounter with Blackbird (Tobin Bell), a member of a contemporary Manson eco-cult—a meeting that will transform Conrad forever.

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Outsiders—be it in music, the counterculture or the horror scene—tend to be birthed from night. Our mothers and fathers gave us our bloodline, but our roots are the mystic darkness of Halloween images, fright shows, shaved and ornate hair and black nail polish. Conrad is an outsider to the family that raised him and to society, but his newfound search for identity through the Manson iconography assists in his rise above the abuse and rejection by the traditional world. This fraught subject is handled by Davis and his cast with sympathy, but also without endorsement or judgment.

The film’s sense of the absurd keeps Conrad’s fascination real, yet unreal at the same time. He never suggests that what attracts him to Manson is right, but the script doesn’t play its hand regarding whether this fixation is wrong either. It’s a feeling not unfamiliar to many a spooky kid at a horror convention, to every Goth searching to find their true self. In most cases, the mainstream/family/culture rejected you—so then what are you? Will you ever belong? MANSON FAMILY VACATION speaks to those who belong elsewhere, and search passionately to find that elsewhere. How did Davis know? The Manson obsession is difficult to defend to most, but it’s undeniable human nature to ponder death, murder and all the horrible things, and for some to try to master them by wearing images of fear and depravity like armor, or a beacon.

MANSON FAMILY VACATION also meditates on the changeling myth—the misfit revealed to be greater than the parents it has known, the strange foundling of a truer, secret lineage. The legend also contains a grain of wish-fulfillment and consolation to those who never feel fully (or at all) accepted by the family they grew up in; perhaps they were never understood because they were meant for something more. The film explores the human yearning to find kindred souls and to connect to one’s true nature—even if aspects of that nature might be considered bizarre, depressing, scary, disturbing, even violent. Conrad pursues his path, and it is up to Nick to figure out where or whether he belongs in Conrad’s life in an honest and thoughtful way. This idea is applied to its controversial, historical subject with complexity—there is sympathy for the sadness, but also a certain respect, if not admiration, for the glory of not belonging to civilian, “normal” society.

MANSON FAMILY VACATION, at its core, is about the yearning of the individual to connect with a deeper found family. And if that larger connection is one of darkness, the message is that this might be OK as well. For any of us who live within the parameters of a counterculture—be it horror or metal or punk—it is our story.

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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