The Film: Helter Skelter (1976)

Buy it from CHUD here!!!!

The Principles: Tom Gries (Director), George Dicenzo, Steve Railsback, Nancy Wolfe

The Premise:
A made for tv movie that tells the story of the Charlie Manson trial from the point of view of the prosecuting District Attorney, Vincent Bugliosi.

Is It Good: No. This movie was a real chore to sit through. I originally decided to watch it due to my wife and I talking about bad events in U.S. history, and Manson’s name came up. I realized I didn’t know all that much about him, and decided I would watch the film my mother always kept me away from while growing up.

The movie moves at a snail’s pace, with the obvious cuts where commercials one time existed. We have so many different police officers working on the case, and showing so many of them working on the case that we have a hard time distinguishing what each team is contributing to the case. The 3 plus hour run time crawls along, and often I found myself fighting to stay interested.

With only a few exceptions for the leads, the acting is on par with community theater rejects attempting to imitate a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Most of the actors could have been better received if they had toned done their camera ham, and that even include George Dicenzo and Steve Railsback. The only performance I would have said is great is the one played by Nancy Wolfe. She is effectively a sweetheart and creepy at the same time. Something that when comparing the real footage to the movie, was incredibly spot on.

Manson was played by Steve Railsback, and come off as someone visibly insane. His footage was much more dramatic than the real Manson, and to me the only thing that stood out was his resemblance to Manson. He had the same build and body structure, as well as face as Manson. If you took him at face value he was Manson. It’s a film about Manson and his family though, and one that often showed the reactions Manson had to the convictions being thrown at him. His reactions were so over the top, so void of reason, and such a call for attention that they made him out to be a lunatic that had no foothold in the world around him.

The real Charles Manson was regarded as a prophet by his followers, and a lot of them said he was Jesus Christ. He built a devout sect that wasn’t too far removed from Hitler’s search for the masterrace, and one that Manson used books from and about Hitler to help him establish. This was a man whose terror was built on him distorting reality into his vision and having the charisma to make others see his vision also. The character on the screen had not the intelligence or charisma to command a following, let alone have a socio-political agenda.

To make matters worse, the film has aged very poorly. All the colors are faded, the sound is horribly mixed and the cinematography is as textbook as any film student has ever seen.

Is It Worth A Look: If you want to know about the Manson events, I cannot think of better. Even though it is not presented well, it is still a captivating subject, and the horror of the real events are as bad as they ever have been. The events may have happened close to 35 years ago, but to see the interviews with Susan Atkins and her lack of emotion still resonates as pure evil, if there ever were a true pure evil. Wolfe captured the persona perfectly and when comparing to the actual footage, it is scarier as she just repeated the emotions displayed by the real person.

The made for tv movie definitely attempts to portray the investigation as a screw up, just a few steps removed from The Wire, but this time with less presentation skills and a lot less corruption. The fact that this is a true story horrifies me to no end, but the presentation ss done just well enough to tell the story, but not good enough for any story not as compelling.

Random Anecdotes:

There was a movie titled Helter Skelter also made for TV in 2004, but was more of a reimagining of the story than a remake, as it focused on the story from the Mason family and not from the prosecutor.

Many Manson followers think Bugliosi was a fame seeker and that the movie did an injustice to Manson and his family.

Linda Kasabian Was the model for Elizabeth Olsen’s character in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Manson was denied parole for a 12th time in April 2012. He was 77 at the time.

Cinematic Soulmates: Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Manson Family, Helter Skelter (2004)