Between the polished pictures and the bubbly trailer, buzz has been good for Canadian filmmaker Reginald Harkema’s latest- Leslie, My Name is Evil. It’s hard to resist the fun, John Waters-esque feel, the beautiful lead, and another look into one of the most infamous cult murderers of all time. But this film is not just some slice of camp horror like the media suggests. Believe it or not, Leslie, My Name is Evil is a biting social and political satire that you may or may not be ready for. Hit the jump to find out what makes this film more than just campy thrills.
The dark comedy focuses on the life and murder trial of Leslie Van Houten (Kristen Hager), one of Charlie Manson’s (Ryan Robbins) loyal followers, and a participant in the LaBianca murders (which came after the slaying of Sharon Tate). We see the good-girl homecoming queen, who was forced to have an abortion as a teen, and subsequently searched for meaning – for something in life to feel passionate about. Unfortunately, what she found was Manson. This true story is balanced with that of the entirely fictional Perry (Gregory Smith), a sexually repressed Christian boy who is desperately trying to avoid getting drafted to Vietnam and also striving to get into the pants of his overly devout bride-to-be Dorothy (Kristin Adams). When he’s called in for jury duty on Leslie’s trial, he’s immediately smitten by the strange and beautiful young woman, who plays out in his mind as the devilish paramour to Dorothy’s straight-laced goodness.
Perry’s story is the camp – the pulp – the pieces that are drawing audiences to the initial trailer. But it is balanced by a rather straight-forward and serious comparison between the Manson murders, Vietnam, and the My Lai Massacre. Manson was lambasted for his crimes and craziness (and even called guilty by President Nixon before convicted) at the same time that the country learned about the 300-500 Vietnamese (mainly women, children, and the elderly) who were sexually abused, tortured, murdered, and in some cases mutilated by U.S. Soldiers in My Lai.
Manson/My Lai is a rather interesting and noteworthy comparison to make, especially since Charlie and his followers are still incarcerated while the 26 charged with crimes after the massacre were never sent to prison, and only one received any punishment at all – 3 years house arrest. But these are contextual aspects outside of the film – and the similarities will most likely be lost to the viewers-at-large who aren’t familiar with the social context, or those who don’t Google up context post-film.
That being said, the connection will certainly evoke visceral reactions whether the audience is well-schooled in the film’s context or not. Harkema juxtaposes the quirky and colorful world of Perry, or even Leslie for that matter, with black and white stills from the massacre and footage from the times. This collision between Harkema’s recreated world and actual shots – old footage of Vietnam protests, news coverage of John F. Kennedy’s funeral – works quite well. It’s a nice visual juxtaposition to the bright world Harkema creates, while also grounding everything in a sense of reality, rather than giving the film an all-over sense of falseness by recreating these scenes and trying to evoke the same social environment and feel.
Outside of the political message. the film still works superficially as a darkly comic piece of cinematic camp with over-acted moments of silliness, strange connections (like Perry falling for this pretty murderess and her insane courtroom antics), and fun, unhinged hyperbole. Perry is the pitch-perfect good boy tantalized by lasciviousness, while Hager flits around as hippie Leslie, and Adams gets to put aside her risque Childstar/Falling Angels ways for some puritanical fun. But it’s Robbins who really brings to life the chills and wild-eyed charisma of Charlie Manson, offering madman qualities with enough vivaciousness to see why the eerie man could command a cult. When things hit the court room, Harkema collaborator Don McKellar steps into action as the slimy prosecutor, and in one strange twist, one of Perry’s fellow jury members looks just like John Waters – the avant-garde filmmaker who has befriended the real Leslie and speaks out for her release.
Leslie, My Name is Evil is Reginald Harkema’s next step in socially conscious filmmaking. In 2006, he merged ex-revolutionaries, radicals, and fighting against gentrification into the comically gritty Monkey Warfare. One can only imagine what’s next.