You can imagine the stoned conversations that led up to it, but no, it could never have been a very good idea to do the Charlie Manson story in stop-motion animation with the voices of punk rockers. And yet the uselessness of it is irresistible. Which is why John Roecker's tasteless little tantrum of a 'toon, Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, is so fascinating. Hard to pay serious attention to, but fascinating. At least in concept.
The Manson Family story -- '60s acid-freaked true crime with class warfare, H'wood decadence, Spahn Movie Ranch spookiness, and forks stuck in mutilated corpses -- has, sadly, been done before. Jim Van Bebber's hog-wild The Manson Family (2003) was the most recent, a live-action orgy of splatter and overacting starring boingy-eyed Marcelo Gomes as the Ohio-born jailbird and psychopath Manson, who led a band of outsiders on a merry murder spree through Los Angeles and vicinity at the height of the hippie-Nixon-Vietnam-psychedelic era.
Punk-rock guru Roecker, who makes rock vids and music docs in addition to working for such bands as X, Green Day, Rancid, and the Go-Go's, obviously sees the Manson saga as low comedy. Not for him is the Todd Haynes approach, in which the filmmaker damps down a trashy, pathetic pop tragedy like Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) by using Barbie dolls to portray the anorexic singer/suicide and her friends. Roecker is a punk. His taste runs more to South Park-style deadpan overkill trimmed with deliberately cheap production values. In fact, Live Freaky! owes a major debt to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's kids -- who after all are more or less the children Charles Manson never had. Same irritating voices, same kitchen-table visual style, same shock value. You can almost hear Stan and Cartman squeal Roecker's dialogue: "Stop being such a pussy." "Stop using derogatory names for my asshole." Roecker isn't quite as witty as Parker & Stone. And the South Park kids, tiny neocon robots that they are, are a lot smarter than Charlie Manson and his followers could ever be. So we're on a trip through the Land of Dumb.
The movie opens with a live-action sequence set in the year 3069, a dubious framing device. A man wandering the desert -- the planet Earth is pretty well trashed by then -- finds a fully cooked suckling pig in the middle of nowhere. After an al fresco lunch, his thoughts turn to entertainment, and sure enough, not far away he finds a copy of Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter -- eleven centuries after it was published. The paperback has a little mud on it. We descend into the animated fantasyland of 1969, where Charlie Hanson (voice of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong), Hadie Hatkins (Theo Kogan of Lunachicks), Squeaky (Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's), and the rest of Charlie's cult are gearing up for some Armageddon-izing. Somewhere along the way, Roecker changed the names of the characters, from Manson to Hanson, Susan "Sexy Sadie" Atkins to Hadie Hatkins, and so forth. As the filmmaker explains it: "I always loved when they made exploitation films and they changed the names. Like this one about the Jim Jones massacre in Guyana and they called him Jim Johnson and Jonestown was Johnson Town. I always thought that was a riot and everything worked when I added an 'H' to the names. It was sort of kismet."
The objects of the Family's wrath are glamorous movie star Sharon Hate (voice of Nelly Pozbourne) and her effete friends, plus a grouchy business owner named Mr. Habianca and his wife. Bitchy Sharon definitely needs a spanking. At her estate in the hills, she hosts a coke-snorting party with Habagail (played by the ubiquitous Euro-shock royalty Asia Argento) and Hay (AFI's Davey Havok). They're rich and hideous, and there's lots of fuck-talk. Sample line: "I hear you can catch retarded!" And Hay is insultingly queer-stereotyped. The Hanson Family spoils their party, but even death doesn't stop Sharon -- her severed head continues to kvetch to Hay, who's also bodiless. The maid comes later that morning. What a mess!
And on it goes, punctuated here and there by a few good voiceovers, including the legendary John Doe from X and the Knitters as Hanson henchman Hex; Green Day's Tre Cool as the maid; and Nick 13 from Tiger Army as a TV reporter ("Ms. Hate and her friends were at home being fabulous when the attacks occurred"). The numerous songs, except for Theo Kogan's "All the Good Things (We Could Have Done)," are forgettable. Roecker's screenplay is, however, a kick in the balls. More sample dialogue, from Mr. Habianca to Mrs. Habianca: "You simply reek of menopause. The only thing that passes from your cunt lips is yeast, and you can't send bread to fight a man's war." That'll kill 'em in Kentucky. In the press notes, writer-producer-director Roecker opines: "I did some early screening of the movie and the audience turned out to be people like me, i.e., people ready to raise the big middle finger at those who gave them shit. I made the film with no boundaries whatsoever." Go get 'em, John. Make those pigs pay.
Speaking of pay, the 2003-produced Live Freaky! Die Freaky! screens two nights only, Friday and Saturday, January 27 and 28 at midnight, at Landmark's Act in Berkeley, as part of the now-familiar marketing device of using a theatrical playdate as a lead-in for the home video DVD and UMD release, which happens January 31. Charlie's message of love is probably something better enjoyed in a crowded theater rather than sitting home alone, stoned in front of the tube. Hardcore puppet sex. Charlie Manson sings. Misogyny. Homophobia. Red paint all over the place. Professor Abronsius says check it out.