Reg Harkema’s new film Leslie, My Name is Evil — out next Friday — finds Canada’s savviest pop filmmaker diving head-on into the mythology of the Manson family, following the downward trajectory of a sweet-faced California girl as she falls under the sway of demonic cult leader Charlie (Ryan Robbins).
Kristen Hager’s performance as the titular Leslie — a character based on real-life murderess Leslie Van Houten — is so vivid that her director has no regrets about the Kristen who got away.
“We made an offer to Kristen Stewart about three months before Twilight came out,” laughs Harkema.
With its warped, bloody aesthetics and caustic take on postwar American society, Leslie probably wouldn’t have made much of a star vehicle anyway. If Harkema’s previous comedy, Monkey Warfare, could be interpreted as a parable of ’60s idealism gone harmlessly to seed, this wildly ambitious follow-up exposes the violence latent in the flower-child counterculture.
The truly whacked-out tone — part exploitation-flick, part camp period piece — feels like a provocation, but also owes to the fact that Harkema is filtering his wide-angle cultural critique through his own childhood memories.
“My dad was a homicide detective,” says the director, “and I recall copies of Helter Skelter and Ed Sanders’ The Family with the big green Manson head being around the house. But I took no special interest in them except for looking up the stuff about the Beatles. Thirty years later, I came across a copy of Helter Skelter at a Value Village and while flipping through it, learned that one of the Manson girls, Leslie Van Houten, was a Dutch Christian baby boomer just like my mom. I picked it up to learn how (somebody like) my mom became a hippie death cult murderess.”
In attempting to answer that question, Leslie raises a whole host of others, including whether or not male protagonist Perry (Gregory Smith) — a church-going government chemist who falls in love with Leslie while sitting as a juror at her trial — is as much an accomplice to violence as the Manson girls. Such postulations — along with the film’s campy mise-en-scene, which makes frequent, menacing use of the stars and stripes — have led some critics to accuse Harkema of anti-Americanism.
“That’s pretty simplistic,” says Harkema, who wasn’t thrilled when a festival programme in the Netherlands trumpeted the film as being anti-U.S. “ Those sorts of reactions strike me as being very reductive.”