In celebration of our Wonderland exhibition, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas looks at the Marilyn Manson film that never was.
This is how the story goes: iconic shock-goth-glam-rock darling Marilyn Manson once tried to make a film about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Wonderland tales, but so outraged were the public by the trailer alone that the project died a suitably scandalous death. The film was to be called Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll, and the combination of spooky bad-boy Manson and the cherished Victorian tale should have been a commercial slam dunk – cinematic catnip for anyone under forty who had ever donned black nail polish while feeling tragic and beautiful. But, for better or for worse, it never happened. Curiouser and curiouser.
It’s easy to see why Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland stories have been so tightly embraced by gothic subcultures across the globe: if ever there were twisted literary adventures that championed the sensation of not fitting in, these were it. Manson – whose real name is Brian Warner – is not the only visual artist who has been drawn to the gothic potential of Carroll’s tales. The video game American McGee's Alice (2000), Mari Terashima’s Lolita film Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Marchen Show!! (2009) a nd Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation are all immediate peers when it comes to texts that emphasise the dark side of Alice. Combine that with Carroll’s signature Victorian aesthetic, and goths and Alice were a match made in heaven. So, when it was announced in 2006 that Manson was going to make his feature directorial debut with this particular project, few were surprised.
Manson stated several times that his horror version would be inspired by Polanski, Hitchcock and Bergman; his fascination was less with Alice than with Carroll himself. At the heart of this obsession lay aspects of the outsider identity that Manson had mastered to precision:
I identified with him so much because I wanted to write a story about a fractured personality like Jekyll and Hyde, which is what I think Alice in Wonderland is about … It’s about someone not knowing who they are supposed to be.
The origins of Manson’s Carroll project have been traced to late 2004, when – on the back of his appearance in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento, 2004) – Manson’s next film role was announced as the Queen of Hearts in another abandoned Carroll adaptation called Living in Neon Dreams. He had already provided a memorably sleazy cameo in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), and through his music videos he had developed a screen persona closely associated with dark, sexually ambiguous perversity. When Living in Neon Dreams fizzled, Manson was already at work on his own Carroll piece, turning his attention more seriously to further cinema endeavours both behind and in front of the camera. Today, Manson’s directorial credits extend no further than music videos, but with Phantasmagoria he almost became a filmmaker. Names rumoured to be attached to the project included Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood and Angelina Jolie, with Lily Cole to take the role of Alice and Manson himself determined to play Carroll.
Attempts to consolidate the Manson–Carroll brand continued with his 2007 album Eat Me, Drink Me, with songs like ‘Are You the Rabbit?’ and lyrical hat-tips to the Red Queen. By the time the trailer to Phantasmagoria was released in late 2010, the reaction was – like all things Manson – hyperbolic, and thus thoroughly in keeping with his conscious perversion of anything remotely family-friendly about Alice. Although less than two minutes long, the trailer suggested that the film would not have held back on Manson’s trademark gothic excesses: on the soundtrack, industrial music clashed with an eerie music box motif, while the imagery adhered loyally to a visual style Manson had already rendered central to his brand (a blurred image of a close-up face at the start of the trailer, for example, has more than a vague echo of the cover to his 2003 album The Golden Age of Grotesque). With a topless teen-girl Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Cole’s Alice bloodied and tortured, the trailer’s aesthetic sensibility was typical of the dark, fetish-imbued gothic sexuality that was already central to Manson’s music video work and broader pop cultural image.
In the mainstream press, much was made of the notion that the negative response to the trailer had triggered the project’s collapse, with one anonymous source stating, ‘The trailer caused such a backlash that a decision was made to close down the project. It’s unlikely it will ever see the light of day.’ At the time, this simply felt like more fuel to the controversy fire, congruous as it was with Manson’s carefully contrived dangerous-provocateur persona. Soon, however, suspicions that the fallout had been concocted as part of a broader promotional campaign began to dwindle. The textbook Manson-ness of the trailer made it difficult to believe that the shock could have been severe enough to send the whole production belly up, and so uniform were press reports that there was ample room for the conspiratorial imagination to take over. Did the project fold for more mundane reasons? Was the so-called scandal just a more marketable explanation for its failure? Such theories almost held water until February 2014, when Manson declared on Twitter: ‘Happy that my PHANTASMAGORIA screenplay, with me portraying Lewis Carroll, is in production. His diaries inspired the best horror film ever.’
But again: nothing. The film had by then been the subject of public interest for a decade. If this was part of a long-term promotional game plan, the tantalising (and, for some, infuriating) idea of a Marilyn Manson–directed Lewis Carroll film had now long overstayed its welcome. By May 2015, even Manson himself seemed to agree, condemning the entire project as a flight of deranged, Carroll-esque fancy: ‘I made a joke to my manager that I wanted to self-induce schizophrenia and I think I may have done that while writing it.’ Elsewhere, at this time, he commented that writing the film was ‘damaging to my psyche [so] I've decided I don't want to have anything to do with it.’
There is, perhaps, something fitting in the perverse irony that Manson’s attempt to subvert Carroll and Alice in his own image ended in nothing more than confessions of derangement and ninety-odd seconds of a trailer for an unfinished movie. Lost forever down the rabbit hole, the film’s title was almost prophetic: blessing or curse, Manson's visions of Lewis Carroll remain little more than a dark, hazy dream.
 G Baddley, Dissecting Marilyn Manson, Plexus Publishing, Medford, 2007.
 J McMahon, ‘Marilyn Manson’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ film shut down due to trailer backlash?’, NME, 14 September 2010, www.nme.com/news/marilyn-manson-s-alice-in-wonderland-film-shut-dow-879992.
 M Manson, Twitter @MarilynManson 7 February 2014, https://twitter.com/marilynmanson/status/431516779647488000.
 C Reiff, ‘Marilyn Manson, Billy Corgan's Press Conference: The 10 Funniest Quotes’, Rolling Stone, 19 May 2015, www.rollingstone.com/music/news/marilyn-manson-billy-corgans-press-conference-the-10-funniest-quotes-20150519.
 Reddit AMA on 3 April 2015 with Billy Corgan and Marilyn Manson, https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/31d131/we_are_billy_corgan_and_marilyn_manson_ask_us/cq0g8hg/].