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Kristen Hager plays Leslie, the suburban teen turned murdering member of the Manson family.

Leslie, My Name Is Evil

  • Directed and written by Reginald Harkema
  • Starring Gregory Smith and Kristen Hager
  • Classification: 18A

Don't be fooled by the title. A small-budget movie with big thematic ambitions, Leslie, My Name Is Evil is not your conventional horror flick. Yes, there's definitely horror in the mix - how could there not be in a film that fictionally addresses the murderous Charles Manson cult. But Manson isn't the primary focus here. Instead, for writer-director Reginald Harkema, it's the mix itself that interests him, the broad social and political and economic and religious elements that resonate beyond that particular act of violence. Really, he's in the equation business, trying to draw connections with equal signs, and the result is essentially a cinematic essay that occasionally seems smart and sometimes just smart-alecky. What it never seems is emotionally engaging.

The math starts in the early sixties with two parallel lines destined to intersect - Leslie (Kristen Hager) follows one and Perry (Gregory Smith) the other. We first see her as a teenager in the Day-Glo confines of her middle-class home, where in short order she's educated in the ills of social dysfunction (her parents are divorcing), political violence (JFK's assassination) and moral hypocrisy (her pro-life mother rushes a pregnant Leslie into an immediate abortion). So schooled, she leaves home to make hippie love and then take up residence in Charlie's "family."

Meanwhile, Perry's path leads him into the virginal orbit of his girlfriend Dorothy, a devout Christian and fervent anti-Commie who, like Perry's conservative dad, supports the war in Vietnam. Inserted archival footage reminds us that both the war and its civilian casualties are escalating. A budding chemist, Perry earns a draft deferment by taking up with a different family, joining a corporate clan that manufactures the very napalm that's adding to Vietnam's death toll. Of course, back at the cult's ranch, Charlie the father (Ryan Robbins) is assuming Christ-like poses and prattling on about "Death to the pigs" while, in the spirit of parallelism, Dorothy et al. are gathered at church singing Onward Christian Soldiers and tacitly sanctioning "Death to the gooks."

To say the least, you can see the equations emerging. An unorthodox cult is preaching the gospel of mass murder, but, the film argues, orthodox religion is delivering the same sermon. The outlaw Manson family is easily demonized, yet, in deed if not word, aren't the corporate and government families equally culpable, and far more lethal? Evil, it seems, goes by many names. To be sure, this is hardly a new argument, nor is the likely response - some will find it convincing, others sophomoric. So, as if to thwart that probability, Harkema looks to keep us off balance by juxtaposing imagery and dialogue in ways designed to continuously shift the movie's tone - it's serious, it's satiric, it's tragic, it's comic, it's outrageous, it's absurd. Then again, so is the complicated "mix" it's depicting.

Anyway, the parallel lines meet when Perry is selected for jury duty in the Manson trial, with Leslie among the co-accused. Starved by his dogmatically virginal girlfriend, damned if our juror isn't turned on the by courtroom testimony, by its unholy communion of sex and violence. In that sense, he's a stand-in for the gawking public and the media that feed it, simultaneously disgusted and excited by the revelations. Fair enough, but subtlety isn't this film's strong suit and, in a bloody dream sequence that doubles as the climax, it has Perry himself joining the cult to slake his libido and splash in the gore. With this surreal outburst, Harkema goes way beyond the pale, apparently channelling Luis Bunuel in one ear and Noam Chomsky in the other.

Yikes, equations everywhere, all drawn in the good name of agit-prop. The whole thing plays like a stoner's musings on Sympathy for the Devil, simultaneously bright in its insights and foolish in its hyperbole. Psychologists have a name for that syndrome and it's not evil but something more forgivable - merely a case of "excessive ideation."

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