Manson V. Manson, DVD Comparison of the Definitive 1973 Documentary

There have been a lot of films, documentary and narrative, about Charles Manson and his followers, but one doc has always stood out above the rest: 1973's Manson.  This film was co-produced and co-directed by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick. Well, there's been some debate over whether both actually co-directed, or who actually was also involved with the writing, etc. It's a bit like Poltergeist; we'll never really know for sure whether Hooper or Speilberg was behind any particular sequence, we can just guess. But the actual film credits list the pair as both producers and directors and Joan Huntington as the sole writer, so I'm gonna go with that regardless of what's on the imdb or other sites. At any rate, the film turned out pretty amazing - it was even nominated for an Oscar - so everybody must've been doing something right.
Manson starts out a little dry with the deputy district attorney Vincent T. Bugliosi and a narrator flatly stating the facts of the multiple murders over some photos and footage of the gang walking to and from court. The narrator borders on the cheesy side, with lines like "he invaded the hippy scene, a venus flytrap among the flowers," and it all follows a long, musical title sequence. But once it gets into the actual interviews, the film comes alive in a very engrossing, disturbing way. The Manson members have been interviewed while the trials are still on-going; they're not behind prison bars talking about how Manson brainwashed them, they're comfortably home on their ranch holding knives and daring the cops to come and get them. These are surprisingly honest, forthcoming conversations when they're right at the height of the trip they're on. One of the girls (Squeaky?) opens with a rifle in her lap, starts out by calmly explaining,

"Whatever's necessary to do, you do it. When somebody needs to be killed, there's no wrong, you do it. And you move on. And you pick up a child, and you move into the desert. You pick up as many children as you can. And you kill whoever gets in your way, this is us."
She's not saying that as a threat, she's giving us as an explanation for why they're perfectly reasonable, and a pitch for why you should come join them. She has the demeanor of a farmer explaining to their child why an animal has to be killed for food, except in her mind it's about escaping a society she's rejected, and if members of that society prove to be difficult, they're perfectly expendable. It's disturbing and yet the most genuinely insightful and truthful. Even if you're not particularly fascinated with the whole Manson thing, you should see it just because it's a great documentary.
Now this film's had a bit of a bumpy road on DVD. Long available and treasured on VHS, it took a long time to arrive at all on a more modern format. Eventually an indie label called Beverly Wilshire put this out on DVD, with a transfer that looked like it was ripped right off the old tape. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that DVD was unauthorized and pulled from release. But in 2008 it was made available again by Hendrickson himself through his original Tobann film company. You could just order it by sending a check or money order to the address on his site after filling out a long form, and more recently, he's been putting up his version on EBay and Amazon, which is a definitely more convenient.
His DVD is a home-made DV-R; just look at the no-frills menu. But it comes in a personalized, signed case (he also signs the disc itself), and he's purportedly gone back to the original film elements to make a new, widescreen transfer. Well, I've got it right here, and I've also got the old Beverly Wilshire disc, so let's finally see what the deal is here.
Beverly Wilshire DVD on top; Tobann DVD bottom.
So first of all, it's true, Tobann's disc has definitely made a new transfer, and it's a noticeable improvement. It's now widescreen at 1.66:1, as opposed to BW's 1.33, and it's a clear case of the widescreen having more picture on both sides rather than the fullscreen version being open matte. So that's a big step up. A big disappointment, however, is that it's non-anamorphic, so you'll be watching a tiny picture floating in a sea of black. And it's not a huge amount of new detail or clarity arises from this transfer, probably due to the original film quality... the BW disc, in that regard at least, actually did an alright job. The BW disc has other problems, though... look at that crazy distortion at the top of the picture, where it all bends to the left. It also has occasional video issues like horizontal bars and interlaced ghost frames. Tobann's disc also has ghost frames (although never the same frame), so it's kind of a tie there. The colors are also different, with Tobann's disc a bit on the green side and BW's a bit on the red side. Bottom line: the Tobann disc is the one to go with, not just because it's official, but because it is genuinely the superior transfer. I just wish, in 2015, he'd at least make new, anamorphic DVDRs.

Now, extras-wise, of course, neither disc has anything. But, for the price of a second disc, you can also get Inside the Manson Gang, which is essentially a whole new documentary, edited together out of all the unused footage from the original Manson doc. This comes in a similarly personalized, autographed DVD-R, and is a full, feature-length (85 minute) doc. It's another non-anamorphic widescreen picture of roughly the same quality as the original, though the saturation is boosted here for a more colorful experience.
How is the movie? Well, it doesn't stand so well on its own. It's relies a lot on heavy-handed narration, and isn't nearly as powerful or interesting. Like how I said everyone should see Manson because it's just a great film? Well, I'd recommend Inside the Manson Gang solely for the Manson enthusiasts who will get excited just at the prospect of seeing more, previously unreleased footage of the "family" living their day-to-day lives on the ranch. If you read that last statement and thought, "yes! I need that," than this film delivers. Otherwise though, I'd say it flops as a film... but all the vintage footage still works as a pretty nice extra if you're willing to shell out double the price for a "2 disc set."
Hendrickson's site seems to have gone down now, otherwise I'd link it, but he's still selling copies of his films on Amazon and EBay. I think you can also by full, hardcopy transcripts of the film if you're so inclined. Now, I'd love it if a company like Synapse or Criterion were able to license this title and give it a new 4k scan for blu-ray, and maybe get Hendrickson to do a commentary (Merrick, tragically, was murdered in 1977). But that doesn't appear to likely, so I'll lower my sights and just hope Hendrickson will someday change his DVDs to be anamorphic. I mean, I could do that for him on my home computer. Still, though, flawed as they may be, his discs are definitely the best way to go, and this is a film that deserves to be owned in the best edition possible.

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