Warner Bros. // 1976 // 184 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // May 5th, 2004
I've got blisters on my fingers...
Little old Charles Manson. Has the idea of ultimate evil ever had a more underwhelming personification? Oh sure, the guy is nuts. Batshit. Playing in his own piss -- perverted. But is he really all that banefully wicked? Couldn't a better argument be made for someone like John Wayne Gacy, working out all his latent homosexual issues via the ritualistic rape and slaughter of teenage boys? Maybe Ted Bundy's brazen intellectualism, rationalizing that he was smarter than and even above the law, signified a more heinous Hellspawn. For all we know, Manson never dined on his victims like Eddie Gein, or kept his captives with holes drilled in their head for same sex games like Jeffrey Dahmer. So why is Manson always numero uno on the Antichrist hit parade? What is Manson's real claim to criminal fame?
Perhaps it can best be described as putting a deadly face on the freewheeling '60s, and killing the counterculture dream once and for all. More than any other entity, radical or rebellious, Charlie boy gave the establishment, with all its hippie-hating hypocrites, a scapegoat -- grounds to declare the battle for the Nation's conscience over and done with. Manson was the face of the youth movement as many considered it to be; a dope smoking, free love lunatic asylum with a secret inset desire to go on a little social slaughtering spree. This diminutive demagogue, raised by the State and its penal system, was the craven, carnivorous Hitler helming his own legion of dirt brown shirts in an all-out assault on the system. It was Manson's hope that the deeds of his "Family" would bring about a race war of Armageddon-like proportions. But all that really resulted was an inflated ego, another addition in the canon of "trials of the century," and a best-selling book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.
In 1976, with the Manson murders still fresh in the minds of the American public, CBS produced a miniseries based on Bugliosi's tell-all tome, which focused on the investigation and trial of this infamous case. Remembered by many as one of the most chilling TV movies ever made, the full three-hour cut of Helter Skelter is now on DVD.
On August 9, 1969, Sharon Tate and Abigail Folger were entertaining friends at the home of actress Tate, who was married to Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski at the time. Tate's former boyfriend, hairstylist Jay Sebring, had come over to discuss a possible business venture. Folger, heiress to the coffee fortune, was spending time with her current lover, Wojciech Frykowski, a friend of Polanski's from Poland. William Garretson, the estate's young groundskeeper, was waiting in the guesthouse for his friend, Steve Parent to arrive.
Elsewhere on the grounds, four dark figures made their way toward the home...
The next day, the housekeeper arrived to find the place in a shambles. Police would later report that they found Parent in his car, a victim of four gunshot wounds to the head. Frykowski was on the lawn, two bullet holes in him, his head crushed by 13 separate blows to his skull, a total of 51 stab wounds to his body. Not too far away, Folger lay covered in blood. She had been stabbed 28 times. Inside the home, the scene was equally grisly. Sebring had been shot and stabbed almost seven times. A nylon rope was tied around his neck and draped over a beam in the ceiling. At the other end of the line was the gore-soaked corpse of an eight-and-a-half-months pregnant Sharon Tate. She had been cut up and knifed 16 times. On the open door to the home, police found the word "pig" written in Tate's blood.
Before the city could recover, the next day (August 10) saw another set of brutal murders. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, an upper-class couple who had just returned from a vacation, were found slaughtered in a fashion very similar to the Tate killings. Leno had a knife jutting from his throat, 26 stab wounds, and seven fork wounds. The killers had left the dining implement sticking out of his belly. The word "war" was carved in his chest. Rosemary was discovered with a pillowcase over her head and an electrical cord around her neck. She had been stabbed 41 times.
Around the rest of the house, the words "Political Piggie" and "Healter (sp) Skelter" were written in blood...
For months, police looked in vain for those responsible for the killings -- even a murder weapon or some shred of physical evidence. In the meantime, they arrested a group of hippie commune members living on the old Spahn movie ranch in the California hills. The "Family," as they were referred to, had been implicated in a series of car thefts. They were later released due to "insufficient evidence." During a subsequent stint in jail for arson, one of the Family members, a young woman named Susan Atkins, told another female inmate that she and her clan had been responsible for the Tate-LaBianca crimes. Assistant District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi got wind of this information and, hoping to find a break in the case, got Atkins to testify to the grand jury. She implicated herself and five other members of the "Family" in the crimes: Charles "Tex" Watson, Linda Kasabian, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, and the so-called leader of the counterculture group, Charles Manson.
While there are those who can argue for Ed Gein and his grave-robbing cannibalism, it's a much safer bet to state that Charles Manson and his Family of felons began the American obsession with serial murder. From the graphic nature of the slaughters (a simple search of the Internet is enough to turn your stomach for a few days) to the strange, cult-like actions of the Family members and their leader, the Tate-LaBianca murders were a milestone in American culture. The crimes were one of the few times where the rich were targeted for what seemed like senseless reasons (this was before the days of stalkers and tell-all tomes about wealth and wickedness). One of the victims was a famous actress/model who at the time was married to perhaps the premier director working in film -- Roman Polanski had just released the classic Rosemary's Baby, and before leaving America under a cloud of legal issues, he would create the seminal Chinatown. The overall brutality, the gossipy, grasping nature of the press (this is decades before 24-hour cable channel wall-to-wall news coverage) and the lingering influence of the Family (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme would go on to be accused of the attempted assassination of President Ford in 1975) made the Manson case something special. It played directly into people's prurient ideas of what went on in Hollywood and the decadent lifestyle of California, and offered up, thanks to Charlie's own crazed behavior, the perfect bad guy for a nation nauseated by flower power.
When LA Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi published his account of the Manson case, Helter Skelter, back in 1971, the public got its first taste of the facts and details of the crime. Manson and his Family were on death row, waiting for a trip to the gas chamber and the dropping of the magic pellet. An entire nation, wanting its bloodlust justice, just couldn't wait to see this wacko and his merry band of insane chambermaids pay for what they did. Then the California Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty and the entire murdering mob had their sentences commuted to life -- with the possibility of parole. Along with the exceptional quality of the book -- as a true crime thriller, Helter Skelter has no equals -- the fact that the members of the Family could be out of jail at some point in the future just tossed further fuel on the bogeyman fire.
Part of the reason that there is still a fascination with the case to this day is because Manson and his believers are still around, spouting their metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about peace, love, and death. Thanks to reporters like Geraldo Rivera, who've actually interviewed Charlie face-to-face so the rest of the world can see just how crazy/crafty he really is, a anti-establishment anti-hero was born, a cranky old coot who still has a fanatical power to compel. His legend has grown so large that the standard "superstar" scenarios have crept up...and with it, the apologists. Yes, there are those who argue that the Manson clan was not responsible for the crimes, or that if some members of the Family were guilty, Charlie himself had nothing to do with it. Thus, a mythical being of untold power was born.
Bugliosi's book also helped create the evil icon. In it, he managed to capture every aspect of the crimes, from the freaked-out fantasies in Manson's head to the eviscerated bodies of the various victims, with spellbinding brilliance. It's one of the most riveting page-turners to ever creep you right out of your shoes. Part horror, part legal thriller and all coated in a covering of the Manson mania, the story appeared a natural for translation to the big screen. But for many in the industry, dragging up such a horrible set of circumstances while the wounds were still fresh (along with the "too close to home" nature of one of the victims), seemed insensitive. Then, CBS announced it would take the plunge and offer up this sickening story in a two-part miniseries event.
Until it was announced in 2003 that another TV movie of Bugliosi's book was to be made, the original 1976 version of Helter Skelter was often cited as the benchmark for eerie true crime made-for-TV movies. Using suggestion and camera tricks to take us for the first time into the lurid crime scene of this horrible case and put a highly dramatized face on many of the main participants, what Helter Skelter lacked in blood and guts it made up for in sheer mental madness. What many people remember about this show (either from its first run, numerous replays or abridged pay cable versions) is the acting: the unbridled, unbalanced nature of Susan Atkins and of Charles Manson himself.
Gladly, after 28 years, very little has changed. Helter Skelter is still a powerful story, a performance tour de force and an excellent TV film. True, in our far more media savvy society the lack of real risqué or redolent information seems to undermine the terror being tapped into, but the stars are still channeling evil as if it were a mere personality wavelength one just tunes in and out of like a radio signal. Steve Railsback, who went on to star in such diverse films as Lifeforce and The Stunt Man, is Charles Manson. Now, that phrase is used a lot in criticism and hyperbole, but the truth is that Railsback completely loses whatever internal and external personality mannerisms he has to turn Manson into a completely controlled ball of seething resentment. Those who see this film always remember Railsback's eyes (as, indeed, the same is said for Manson) and you can literally see the hate and the hubris pouring out of the orbs with laser-like intensity. Towards the end, Railsback has a mean, masterful monologue in which Charlie charges the State with raising him to be an antisocial megalomaniac. Though some may consider it over the top, the actor captures with complete authority the magnetic menace that has become synonymous with Manson over the years. There has been, perhaps, no better performance of a real-life socialized madman in the history of cinema than Railsback's brilliant, bravado turn.
Sadly, it seems like Nancy Wolfe's equally enigmatic turn as Susan Atkins has been forgotten, vanishing from the film's lineage of praise as quickly as Wolfe herself disappeared from the industry (the IMDb has her listed as appearing in two TV films only, including Helter Skelter...and that's it). In many ways, Wolfe is the real evil in the film -- the cool, collected member of the peace generation hiding a heinous, homicidal streak. Wolfe is actually "acting" here, giving Atkins the multi-layered malevolence necessary to secure her link to Manson and the rest of the Family. The trick she pulls off then is truly remarkable. She is a lonely hippie turned psychotic killer, trying to act normal to fool everyone, while at times letting Atkins's bubbling insanity break through. Nancy Wolfe gives Helter Skelter its creepy sense of unpredictability and delivers one of the most outstanding performances ever in a television film.
Fans of the horror genre will also love seeing Leatherface's favorite victim, Texas Chainsaw Massacre's big screen scream queen Marilyn Burns, as Linda Kasabian, eventual Manson Family "snitch" and key witness for the prosecution. Burns, saddled with much of the film's expositional "testimony," is riveting as she recalls the details of the Tate-LaBianca crimes and even adds to the emotional havoc that the tragic events evoke. Along with George DiCenzo, who is more or less the spitting image of Vincent Bugliosi, and the laconic Jason Ronard, who turns Manson man Paul Watkins into a walking, talking authority on the Bible, Revelation, and the Beatles' White Album (all coming together to form a motive for the final battle between the races -- called "Helter Skelter" by Manson) the performances here are all exceptional.
As a narrative, Helter Skelter relies a little too much on audience familiarity with the events that occurred almost seven years before the film was made, meaning we learn next to nothing about the Tate group or the LaBiancas as individuals. They quickly assume their roles as victims and the main police portion of the film kicks in. The first third of the narrative tends to meander, as if visually drawing in the divergent elements of the case to a single point of plot. Once we get to Atkins's prison confessions and grand jury testimony, the movie ignites like the slow-burning fuse to a bomb. Thanks to Tom Gries's journeyman direction (he was an old hand at TV films by '76), the buildup is slow, methodical, and peppered with many instances of shocking force. And yet, Gries always manages to keep the movie grounded, never letting the psychedelic nature of the events or the Family overwhelm the story.
Another reason for the film's realism is the reliance on the transcripts from the trial to make the movie's unsettled nature come to life. Manson and his girls were notorious for treating the courtroom as a playground, a place to pull all manner of mind games and tricks on the attorneys and the jury. While it is conceivable that some of this material had to be cleaned up for mid-'70s television (the dialogue does indulge in a "bitch" or two -- quite scandalous for the times), using the actual words of the participants involved shows how the old adage of truth being more compelling than fiction works every time.
Still, there is so much more that could have been done with Helter Skelter. For all its sensationalistic sentiments and glimpses into cold-blooded killing, this film is essentially a police/courtroom drama. It would have been nice to have the Family fleshed out more, removing the façade of freaked-out deviants to actually provide them with normal faces and plausible personalities. It would have also been nice to know something more about Sharon Tate and her stature as a star. Thirty-plus years removed from her celebrity, we tend to dismiss Tate as "just another pretty face" taken too soon from the world. The crimes here would have had more impact to future audiences had they been able to understand Tate's place as a pop culture figure. Manson is also much more than just an evil imp soiling Spahn Ranch with his bad music and sexual desires. He was a classic career case, a profiler's dream of institutionalization and delusion. None of that is here. In a story like this one, all we need is a monster and we are given one, period.
But overall, Helter Skelter is a marvelous, macabre look at one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history. The film seems to signal the death knell for the turbulent times of the love decade, while butchering the counterculture by giving it a murderous, malicious tag that would last for years. The killings were, indeed, some of the cruelest and most inexcusable acts of human sickness ever inflicted on society. Helter Skelter brings them to compelling life, even if it fails to explain them.
Warner Brothers is to be commended for finally releasing the entire 180-minute version of the film on DVD. But this does not mean that the presentation is pristine. In reality, it is barely passable. The full frame transfer looks generations old, the 1.33:1 image marred by scratches, defects, noise, and other visual variations. The color seems faded and indistinct in some places, and when we get into some of the later dissolves and double exposure material (to hide the hideous nature of the crimes) the age of the film is really obvious. While it looks better than most VHS or broadcast reruns, Helter Skelter should have been given a complete remaster.
The sound is also somewhat of a scandal. In an obvious attempt to distance themselves from the actions of Manson and his clan, the Beatles denied CBS the right to use their music (frankly, it was hard to get them to allow any use prior to the mid-'80s), so we are treated to versions of "Piggies," "Long, Long, Long," and the title track by some sour-sounding cover band. Aurally, the levels are too "bright," giving everything a tinny, overly trebled quality. This was standard for '70s television production, but it could have been cleaned up here.
Along with the absolute lack of extras, there seems to be a tie-in mentality to this release (the new 2004 movie will be broadcast in May, supposedly). Warner must be hoping that those new to the story of Manson and his Family will buy this stingy version of the title. They should have taken more care, if only out of historical deference.
Before Roots stole its title, Helter Skelter was the top-rated TV movie of all time. So this barebones, barely remastered DVD version of such a influential work is almost inexcusable. Manson is one of the most covered criminals in the history of modern media, and to ignore this material for digital release seems ridiculous. And what about a commentary track? Wouldn't it be nice to hear Railsback remember his work on the film? How about a few words from Vincent Bugliosi, someone always willing to (over)analyze the Manson case? Listening to him discuss the film would have been priceless. Perhaps a timeline of events? Photos of the actual participants? Heck, any contextual material whatsoever? Treating Helter Skelter like any old relic from the past is disrespectful, to both the memory of the victims and the fans of this fascinating television drama.
For many, the trial of Charles Manson and the members of his Family for the Tate-LaBianca murders, is one of the greatest courtroom spectacles in the history of the American criminal justice system. John Waters, in his memoir Shock Value, talks openly about attending the proceedings and witnessing many of the notorious publicity stunts Manson and his gals engaged in. So maybe little old Charlie wasn't so crazy after all. Maybe he finally achieved in criminal conviction that which he so desperately sought in his non-slaughtering peace-and-love lifestyle. He is famous now, historical and archetypal. Comedians fashion routines around his persona (Jeff Altman has a particularly funny bit where he refers to Manson's piercing gaze as filled with flashing neon warnings of "Helter Skelter") and filmmakers looking to spoof his spookiness love to craft lampoons of this loon (right, South Park?).
Yet for all the extremes surrounding the case, the bloody brutality, the counterculture craziness, and the unfathomable fiendishness of Manson and his followers, there is still a question that needs to be asked? Why Manson? Why is he so interconnected with immorality and evil? Sure, he seems a poster boy for all this is wrong with the world, but there are so many other examples of serial killing that should trump him. The Green River Killer. Russian "monster" Andrei Chikatilo. Even forgotten fiends, never mentioned again in the discussion of death, like the Cleveland Torso Killer, Albert Fish, or the Hillside Stranglers, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono. Even Andrew Cunanan, the infamous murderer of Gianni Versace, has seemed to fall off the radar of reprehension after only six short years out of the spotlight. But Manson still hangs on. Perhaps it's because of what he represents to the '60s generation. Or maybe it's the vileness of his acts. But a better answer may be the impact the TV film Helter Skelter had on a generation. It's a frightening, and unforgettable, film.
Helter Skelter the movie is found not guilty and is free to go. Warner Brothers is held over for grand jury investigation into its complete lack of bonus material, as well as the less than stellar treatment of the sound and visual aspects of the title, on the DVD format.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 184 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Unrated