Sunday, July 17, 2011

Leslie, My Name is Evil (2009)

Directed by Reginald Harkema
Starring Kristen Hager, Gregory Smith
Rated R

"I don't care what Jesus wants." 

Charles Manson was a charismatic Schizophrenic folk singer who took advantage of the freewheeling 60's peacefreak movement, forming a loosely-knit harem of pie-eyed hippy chicks and preaching to them about a screwball endtimes scenario that involved Beatles tunes and machine guns bolted on dune buggies. Manson's loony dream ended in the senseless murders of seven innocent people, including actress Sharon Tate. The gruesome crimes shocked the world, and Manson became an iconic boogieman, the man who killed the 60's and ushered in the sick, sick 1970's. Naturally, given the bizarre and sensational crimes of the Manson family, there have been many cinematic interpretations over the years, from the infamous '76 TV movie Helter Skelter to Jim Van Bebber's gory, cruel, decade-in-the-making Manson Family (2003). Leslie, My Name is Evil (misleadingly re-titled Manson, My Name is Evil for the DVD release), mines similar territory, but from an entirely different angle: it's a fictional take on the Manson court case that focuses on one of Manson's female followers, Leslie Van Houten, and an idealistic young juror who develops a crush on her.

Van Houten (above, middle) was involved in the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca on August 10th, 1969. Along with her accomplices, she was sentenced to death for the crimes in 1971. The sentences were later commuted to life in prison. She's still serving time. A former high school cheerleader, the photogenic and fashionable Van Houten was only 19 at the time of the Manson murders. Between her good looks and demented courtroom antics - she frequently lapsed into giggle-fits when the prosecutor described her crimes - she makes for a perfect cinematic subject, an acid-gobbling death-angel in denim that neatly encapsulates everything that went wrong in the late 1960's.

Directed by Canadian indie-film workhorse Reginald Harkema (Monkey Warfare), Leslie is a deep-black comedy that revels in the psychedelic excess of the Manson era, mixing  Giallo-esque period-piece production design with vintage news footage, wrapping it in iconic imagery and a doomy acid-rock soundtrack as it cleverly merges the nightmare world of Manson with the equally sadistic pro-war, pro-Jesus culture of American suburbia.

Straitlaced chemistry student Perry (Gregory Smith, Hobo with a Shotgun) meets Dorothy (Kristin Adams) for the first time at the library. She’s a cute but clearly insane Jesus freak. She shows him an awesome (but phony) Jack Chick tract about a hippy girl who takes acid and fucks the devil. Foreshadowing! He’s into science, but you know, you do what you have to get laid in this world.

Meanwhile, Leslie (Kristen Hager, Being Human) is at the women’s clinic, getting an abortion. So things aren’t going so well for her. At this point, Perry and Dorothy are an item. They even go to church together. That’s where Perry’s uptight dad (Peter Keleghan) meets Dorothy for the first time. He smokes (in church), and laughs about “gooks” with his son’s new right-wing, evangelical girlfriend. All systems are go for another  blandly patriotic nuclear family. Except....well, Perry's not entirely sure this is what he wants out of life. Things aren’t getting better for our girl Leslie, either. Now dad’s moved out, and mom’s no fun to talk to at all. Her nuclear family has thoroughly detonated.

Then there’s a pretty sweet montage to move the story along. Over a loner-folk jam, real video images of ‘Nam and college protests are mixed with scenes of Perry and Dorothy doing squaresville stuff while Leslie grows her hair long and makes out with a hippie folksinger on the beach. Said folksinger turns out to be future Manson cohort/patsy Bobby (Travis Milne). One night on the beach, while getting stoned and listening to Bobby jam, Leslie meets two of Charlie's girls, Sadie (Angelica Scannura) and Katie (Kaniehtiio Horn).

Leslie’s a little put-off by the fact that Bobby wants to go for a tumble with Laura (Sarah Gadon), another one of Charlie’s girls, but then Bobby calls her a square, and that changes everything. Who the fuck are you calling square, man? So she splits to visit this Charlie character.

Meanwhile, Perry’s not getting too far with Dorothy. There’s a scene where they make out in his convertible in front of a green screen sunset, but when he tries to go a little further, she shuts him down. “I love you, Perry,” she explains, “But I love Jesus more.”

Leslie goes to meet Charlie down the ranch. She’s a bit overwhelmed at first. Probably because he’s hanging from a cross at the time. He lays his rap on her, they make sweet Satanic acid-hippy love together, and she joins the family. Seems pretty gross - there's a lot of dirty feet and sleeping on the floor and whatnot - but she's into it.

Perry gets a deferment from a chemical company he’s going to work for once he graduates school, so he won’t have to go to Vietnam. This excites Dorothy so much she lets him get to second base while making out outside of school while, just a few feet away, cops bash in protestor’s heads.

Back at the ranch, Bobby shows up to jam with Charlie. First though, he takes some time out to make sweet murder-cult love with Leslie, who is now referring to herself as Lulu. During their post-coital cuddle, he finds out just how deep she’s gotten into all this Charlie jive when she starts ranting about how far-out he is. Bobby, clearly jealous, tells Leslie he’s thinking of starting his own killer-hippy commune, but c’mon, we know that’s never gonna happen, Bobby.

That night, around the campfire, they all drop LSD and have a Satanic jamboree! Even the seven-year old kid gets a dose. That seems irresponsible to me, but what the hell. Charlie does his acid-is-groovy-kill-the-pigs speech, and he and Bobby belt out their smash hit “Will You Follow Me to Hell?”. It’s a pretty sweet jam, I’ll give them that much.

Things start going bad for Leslie soon after. Bobby, on a dare from Charlie, kills a cop, and ends up in prison. In protest, Charlie orchestrates a murder spree. California trembles in fear of the hippy killers. The fear even spreads to the suburbs.

Leslie goes along for the second round of ritual murders, but doesn’t really get stab-happy until the victim is already dead. At least that’s how it looks. Hard to say, since the whole scene looks like a Dandy Warhols video. Check with your local weirdo true-crime enthusiast for more information. Anyway, long story short, Charlie and the girls end up on trial for murder. And then Perry ends up on the jury. Of course, this fucks up Dorothy’s grand plans, but what can you do?

The trial begins. Most of the testimony is about all the “balling” going on at the ranch. In fact, even the jurors, relaxing after a day of court, can’t stop yapping about Charlie’s sexy death squad. I mean, this is all next-level stuff, as far as crimes-of-the-century go.

Also, back at jail, Leslie reveals that she has a crush on Perry. Seems like the looming death sentence would be a bigger concern, but the heart wants what the heart wants.

He kinda digs her too, though. So it’s cool. The problem is, this trial is making him seriously hot and bothered, and Dorothy is still giving him this not-until-we’re-married routine.

One night, after a particularly antics-filled trial day (Leslie lunges at a testifying Laura, and everybody ends up flashing their yellow panties), Perry goes back to the hotel and has a psychedelic dream about stabbing Dorothy to death for Charlie and then getting to bang Leslie for his efforts. There’s some giant bloody boobs in the dream. FYI. That’s probably why Perry woke up sticky.

So finally, Leslie testifies. It doesn’t go well. Note to anybody on trial for murder: don’t mention how fun it was.
The jury goes into deliberations. Everybody wants to put the whole bunch of ‘em to death, including Leslie. Everybody except, naturally, for Perry. He won’t budge on the Leslie thing. And then…the ground rumbles. Earthquake! And during his most terrifying moment, Perry makes his decision.

It bears repeating that the actual title of this film is Leslie, My Name is Evil. The thoughtless, cash-grabbing name change for the DVD release is deceitful for two very important reasons. First of all, no one in the film has any last names, so if anything, they should have retitled it ‘Charlie, My Name is Evil’. Secondly, it’s not about Charlie, it’s about Leslie. “Leslie, My Name is Evil” is an amazing title. I’d buy the poster and the t-shirt. “Manson, My Name is Evil” sounds like something on the bottom rack of the video store. Aside from that dumb decision, Leslie is a frequently brilliant film that combines the overwrought true-crime docudrama with inky black comedy and a John Waters-esque sense of the absurd. Driving his influence/inspiration home, Harkema even cast a John Waters lookalike as one of the jurors. The film looks amazing, with all the throbbing colors and iconic fashion statements of the era fully represented. Every scene is stuffed with classic images, many of them perfectly staged reproductions of actual photos or footage.

Essentially, the whole movie looks like a really bitchin' MC5 gig poster from 1968. The soundtrack - which is fairly screaming for it's own release - is haunting and moody, with tracks from vintage 60's psyche-rockers like 13th Floor Elevators and West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band mixing seamlessly with contemporary drug-droners like Pink Mountaintops and Black Angels. Harkema's political point - were napalm attacks really any different than Helter Skelter coming down fast? - is pretty heavy-handed, and it's difficult to get away from the fact that we're reveling in a fantasy world that is based on real-life tragedy, but otherwise, Leslie, My Name is Evil is a cult classic in the making, a weird and wonderful film that takes one of America's ugliest moments and turns it into a druggy, brooding, frequently beautiful performance piece.

PS: You can hear the Movies About Girls cast talk about Leslie My Name is Evil on Episode 106 of the Movies About Girls podcast!

- Ken McIntyre

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