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‘Charlie Says’ revisits the Manson family, finds little new to say

Charles Manson (Matt Smith) casts his spell on women including Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, left) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) in "Charlie Says." | IFC Films

A few years after committing murder at the behest of their sick and twisted god and guru Charles Manson, three young women occupy adjacent cells, separated from the general population.

They’ve been spared the death penalty due to a change in the California laws, but it’s a near certainty they’ll never see the light of freedom again — and yet they seem content and peaceful, almost happy.

As bedtime nears, they can hear “Ride My See Saw” by the Moody Blues on a distant portable radio — and one of them begins to sing along with an angelic voice belying the darkness inside her.

And then they all bid each other goodnight, as if they’re college students on a sleepover.

This chilling and disturbing moment occurs early on in Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says,” which focuses on the efforts of a grad student (Merritt Wever) who teaches classes to incarcerated women, and her attempts to understand and educate three of Manson’s most notorious disciples in the early 1970s.

Unfortunately, although the “Ride My See Saw” moment is hardly the only effectively creepy scene delivered by screenwriter Guinevere Turner and Harron (who previously teamed up for “American Psycho”), we never gain any real insight or understanding into why these women surrendered themselves to Manson’s third-rate messiah act to the point where they’d believe his mad prophecies and kill for the cowardly cult leader.

“Charlie Says” (the title springs from the women constantly saying, “Charlie says” before voicing an opinion or answering a question) is at its most interesting in the prison scenes.

Wever’s Karlene Faith sits in a semi-circle with Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon), listening incredulously as they explain how they’ll be free one day soon after the revolution, and they’ll sprout wings as half-humans, half-elves.

You DO know elves are mythic creatures, and even if you did get out of here, you’ll never sprout wings, says Karlene.

Yeah, but “Charlie says…”

About half the film is devoted to flashback sequences set in the late 1960s, starting with Van Houten arriving at the Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles County, where Charlie Manson reigns as the self-appointed savior and ruler of a group of lost and delusional sycophants that includes more than a dozen young women. Charlie preaches love and togetherness and equality, but for all his guitar-strumming and “no judgment” and “free love” speechifying, he’s a manipulative, abusive narcissist who preys on the innocent and the vulnerable, using sex and drugs as means to maintain control and exercise domination.

Matt Smith convincingly takes on the physical trappings of Manson, from the hair and the beard to the infamous wild-eyed stare, but falls short in conveying whatever dark and horrific charisma Manson possessed that led his followers to lose all grasp on morality and sanity and commit such atrocious acts in his name.

Filmed in golden tones, the flashback sequences often feature Manson’s female disciples speaking in dreamy tones and doing anything to please Manson, all the while smiling as if they’ve been hypnotized and are in a collective state of denial about how this will all turn out. (As Charlie says, one should always just live in the moment, with no thoughts of the past or the future. The better to discourage anyone in the “family” from saying, “Hey, what’s the long-term plan here?”)

By August of 1969, all the pretense of a utopian society had been buried under a black cloud of psychotic rage, with Manson directing his acolytes to commit murder. (In a small role, Grace Van Dien is heartbreakingly effective as Sharon Tate, who is eight-and-half-months pregnant and pleads for her life and her baby’s life in her final seconds.)

Just as we don’t gain a complete picture of why and how Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins fell under Manson’s spell in the first place, we don’t fully buy the prison scenes in which Karlene strives to peel back the group-think and get each of them to understand and take responsibility for their crimes. While well-intentioned and thoughtful, “Charlie Says” is too ambivalent and too safe to deliver much in the way of original insight.

‘Charlie Says’

IFC Films presents a film directed by Mary Harron and written by Guinevere Turner. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use, and language). Running time: 111 minutes. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.