The Horror Honeys: SXSW Review: Manson Family Vacation

SXSW Review: Manson Family Vacation

A Head Honey SXSW Review by Kat

Manson Family Vacation (2015)

Winner of the award for
Achievement in Poster Art
It isn’t often that I’m approached by children to talk about what I do… but while waiting to go into the screening for Manson Family Vacation, I was standing with two other female freelance film writers chatting about our SXSW experiences when the youngest actor in the film (Adam Chernick who plays Max) and his father approached us to ask us about what we did. This precocious little man was very curious about how we did our job, and if we ever had to watch bad movies and give bad reviews. Our answer was yes, we did have to watch bad movies, and yes, we did give bad reviews sometimes, but we stressed the fact that our reviews are always honest, and while people might not like to hear honesty sometimes, you always have to be honest about how you feel about art. We also made sure to tell him that what we liked or didn’t like didn’t always mean that someone else wouldn’t like it. He seemed satisfied by our answers, and hung out for a little bit chatting about how much fun he had making the movie and how much he liked acting. Heart. Squish. Die. 

Luckily for Adam, I couldn’t give Manson Family Vacation a bad review if I tried. 

I am those kids… I am a child. I never lived in your society, I never went to school, I raised myself. Everything I do is always brand new.” - Charles Manson when asked why kids write to him.

If you have siblings, you’ve probably had some rough patches while growing up. Younger siblings are annoying, older siblings are resentful and sometimes being able to relate to each other as adults is difficult. My brother and I don’t have a great relationship, sometimes we can talk face to face like adults with unique world and life experiences and things are fine, but then family bullshit and old hurts seep back into the conversation and everything goes off the rails. At the heart of Manson Family Vacation that’s what’s going on - two men, trying to connect and understand what the hell happened to bring their relationship to its current state.

The story (this is MY version, I don't like the IMDb version): After the death of their father, two brothers leading very different lives try to reconnect and repair their fractured relationship

Elder brother, Conrad (Linas Phillips), has been living the life of an artist while Nick (Jay Duplass) has gone to Law School, and followed a parentally approved “plan for success” complete with a wife, a house and a great job. At odds on several fundamental levels, Nick resents his elder brother for his careless lifestyle and can’t wrap his head around literally anything his brother believes in or does. To top it all off, Conrad has a bit of an agenda attached to his visit, and it’s an agenda that Nick just can’t come to terms with.


As a horror fan, and a true crime fanatic, Conrad’s requests are actually not that weird. He wants to tour the Manson Family murder locations. Namely the Tate/LaBianca murder locations. However, as much of an enthusiast as I am, I have to side with Nick on his nope-face as Conrad poses for a photo in front of the Cielo Drive gate wearing a Charles Manson t-shirt. Not classy. The pair also dine at the El Coyote, sitting in the same booth that Sharon Tate and her party ate lunch on August 9th, 1969, just hours before their deaths at the hands of the Manson Family.  

I can understand Nick’s awkwardness when dealing with Conrad; his obsession with Manson’s life, philosophies and manipulations borders on fanatical and the real discomfort comes from his obvious glee at visiting the sites of the murders, even going so far as to lie their way into the LaBianca house. Now this moment, was an interesting one. In an attempt to ingratiate himself with his brother, Nick is the architect of their entry into the house, but shit gets weird fast because Conrad just can’t keep his mouth shut. 
Phillips and Duplass playing "Eye Spy a naked cult member  environmentalist."
This strange adventure is capped off with Nick taking Conrad to his “new job” with a shady “environmental group” which turns out to be more than what they seem. Tobin Bell makes an appearance at this juncture as a surprisingly charismatic and likeable role as Blackbird. Far from acting as a voice of reason, as Nick was hoping for, Blackbird is instead the catalyst for Conrad’s final separation from his brother. 

“I’m just a messenger of truth. I am the pope in the hills and the mountains…”
-Charles Manson

While a recurring topic in the film is Charles Manson and the crimes of the Manson Family, Manson Family Vacation is a tender portrait of the relationship of two men who discover that they really don’t know how to relate to each other outside of the context of family attachment. I don’t know much about mumblecore, but whatever it is, it works for Manson Family Vacation, which is compelling and very human drama that feels honest in its portrayal of a relationship depth that most adult men try really REALLY hard to brush away, hiding actual emotions under shoulder punching and binge drinking. 

I didn’t know what to expect from Manson Family Vacation, and while I was able to predict the final twist, I’m not sure that many people would pick up on it unless they’re familiar with the case and have read Helter Skelter a few times (guilty). Family relationships and the nature of emotional attachments is a tough subject for a genre film, and while I would still classify Manson Family Vacation as a genre film, it’s definitely on the lighter side of the spectrum. The conclusion of the film leaves us hanging, and makes the audience question the nature of blood ties vs. emotional bonds and which family is truly dearer to us, the one we’re given, or the one we choose. 

Head Honey verdict:  4 Beach Boys cover songs out of 5

This little man. Seriously. <3