Manson Family Vacation full movie review - A seamless exercise in merging comedy and horror
Nick and Conrad (Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips) grew up under the same roof; Conrad was the child their parents adopted because they couldn't conceive, but then along came Nick after a successful pregnancy.
This tension has lived with them throughout their entire lives, as the attention that was absorbed by Conrad, who, no matter which way you want to slice it, was still somewhat of an outsider in his own home, became second to Nick once their parents conceived their very own child.
In the present day, Nick has become a prominent family-man with his wife Amanda (Leonora Pitts) and son in their beautiful home, and the thought of his brother Conrad only sporadically crosses his mind. One day, however, Conrad surprises them by showing up at their doorstep with a Charles Manson shirt on and a desire to continually discover more about the famous murderer. Conrad's fascination with Manson stems from Manson's emphasis on family, despite being an outsider. Manson helped gather a group of people together that were rejected from society and made each of them feel loved and welcome, all while encouraging ideas of love and forgiveness, but also incorruptible unity and togetherness at all times.
Being that Conrad has chosen to reject all conventional American sentiments and live life by way of cross-country hitchhiking, his unannounced arrival at Nick's house is an effort to initiate some brotherly bonding before Conrad goes off to work at a job in Death Valley. This kind of bonding involves both men sneaking around and breaking into the famous home where the Tate/LaBianca murders occurred decades ago, in addition to attending a party where all the guests are Charles Manson loyalists.
J. Davis's Manson Family Vacation, another line in decidedly small-scales movies put out by Duplass Brothers Production, run by both Jay and Mark, takes the oldest trick in comedic filmmaking (two vastly different personalities) and uses it as the thesis for a film that deals with an outsider's obsession with a murderer. Conrad is so fascinated and gripped by Manson's politics and life story that he almost entirely forgets - and even makes an effort to conceal, in the manner of a conspiracy theorist - the fact that Manson, regardless of anything he said or believed, was a murderer. This fact greatly disturbs Nick, who is so far out of his element when it comes time to sneak into the Tate/LaBianca home that he might as well be thrust onto a different planet.
This is a film that's almost unclassifiable in terms of its genre. It blends deadpan, mumblecore-style comedy with slowburn tension and horror in a way that has the two meshing together so nicely that when you're supposed to laugh or fear isn't readily dictated by the events of the film. Manson Family Vacation is also not brazenly funny enough to be a black comedy, nor consistently unsettling to be a horror film. Writer/director Davis, who has worked with the Duplass brothers before, exquisitely conducts this film like as an act of genre revisionism that's rarely seen, especially in such a smooth and seamless manner.
Largely predicated on the relationship between the two men in the film and the two aforementioned moments of their brotherly bonding that take a turn for the worse, Manson Family Vacation is more-or-less a filmed idea than a conventional film, given how few events take place and how little the characters seem to develop. Nonetheless, there's a lovely quietness to this film and a true desire to profile the characters as they are, and the way Davis does that, while crafting a story that burns as slowly as an unpuffed cigarette, despite a very concise eighty-four minute runtime, is something that's difficult to ignore.
Starring: Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, and Leonora Pitts. Directed by: J. Davis.