Charles Manson The Final Words is in part based on Hippie Cult Leader

By: Jessica Goddard

One of last year’s most eagerly-anticipated headlines – the death of Charles Manson – makes this documentary on the notoriously fascinating subject all the more topical.  Narrated by Rob Zombie, Charles Manson: The Final Words (based on the book Hippie Cult Leader by James Day) uses disturbing files from the original murder investigation, interviews with members of Manson’s cult, and exclusive audio from phone conversations with the aged Manson himself while he was still alive and serving his life sentence at California State Prison.

Don’t expect a detailed retelling of Manson’s life story; it’s not biographical.  The film is specifically concerned with Manson’s status as a cult leader and the famous murders for which Manson eventually went to prison.  It provides photos and timelines and crude dramatic recreations, but ultimately its main export is an alternative theory to what many will have understood to be a closed case.

There’s potential controversy here, as the documentary calls into question the legitimacy of Manson’s historic conviction and scrutinizes the prosecution’s famous “Helter Skelter” conspiracy that’s become synonymous with the “Manson Family” (another term dismissed as propaganda).  Really what this film is doing is taking an 80+ year old iconic murderer and giving him a microphone and, perhaps more contentiously, taking him and his point of view seriously.  But you know what?  It’s compelling.

Charles Manson: The Final Words asks you to reconsider what you think you know about the motive behind the Tate-Labianca murders.  It’s the perfect documentary in that it takes your perception of the facts and forces you to interrogate them within yourself.  The timing is both convenient and inconvenient now that Manson is dead.  There’s no one disputing that Charles Manson was an evil man.  But are we comfortable putting evil people away (he was initially sentenced to death) on the basis of a manipulated justice system?  Can someone who is evil in one way be reasoned with in other ways?  At what point do we close a case, even if questions still remain?  And for whose sake?