Helter Skelter (1976)
Cast: Steve Railsback, George DiCenzo, Marilyn Burns, Nancy Wolfe, Christina Hart
Director: Tom Gries
Nutshell: Solid docu style dramatization of the infamous Manson Murder trial
It had to happen – a spin-off made for TV dramatization of the ghastly crimes committed by the Manson Family, yet while the majority of filmed versions of “true crimes” have often been sensationalist and opportunist, this three hour (two-part) film is one of the glaring exceptions.
The 1976 TV film is based on Helter Skelter the book by prosecuting lawyer cum True Crime novelist Vincent Bugliosi which bought much credibility to the True Crime genre and deserved the enormous success it achieved on the Best Sellers list. The filmmakers took the approach of presenting the events as a courtroom based docu-drama rather than trying to recreate the entire scenario surrounding the Tate-LaBianaca Murders concentrating on the aftermath of the killings; specifically the trial that put Manson and his family behind bars, albeit temporarily as many of the murderous “family” are now legally free even if old Charlie Manson remains incarcerated.
Though the film suffers from a typical made-for-TV style and “look”, it has plenty going for it. The script is meticulously faithful to Bugliosi’s thorough novel and never sensationalizes events. Also, it avoids gore yet still manages to evoke feelings of revulsion due to the callous depiction of events by those who murdered. The performances in general are of the highest order with Steve Railsback outstanding as Charlie Manson and Marilyn Burns, fresh from being Massacred in Texas with a Chainsaw turns in another strong performance as Linda Kasabian, ex-family member. Nancy Wolfe as Susan Atkins is exceptional in her portrayal of a brainwashed, demented, cold hearted killer.
Another of the films strengths is that it manages to portray the essence of what was a long and protracted trial while also highlighting the legal arguments and the hurdles that had to be faced in order to bring justice. What it perhaps fails to do adequately is portray how the times shaped and influenced events as much as they did and how Charlie and his family were a reflection and a bastard spawn of the world around them and as they understood it. Not that this in any way justifies the horrendous crimes that the family perpetrated, just perhaps allows one to understand the reasons better by understanding the environment that they occurred in better. If there is a flaw in this otherwise highly commendable film, it is that this connection between Manson and the 60’s environment in the US isn’t adequately conveyed.
Steve Railsback who recently played Ed Gein to good effect is almost perfect as Manson and the direction is understated which is not unwelcome in a documentary style film of this nature. The interludes between prosecuting lawyer Bugliosi and his wife are perhaps the weakest links of the film yet they serve as somewhat necessary bridges between what would otherwise be a succession of courtroom footage. Being a born cynic one wonders if Mr and Mrs. Bugliosi ever talked about how this high profile “celebrity trial” could net him a nice little career if he were to write a book about it and then sold the (hopefully) best selling book to a TV studio and followed up with a movie deal? Well, whatever the case might be, Bugliosi proved both a shrewd if not brilliant lawyer and equally astute a business man and author.
This movie is similarly efficient yet if only one had a bit more of a tangible feel of the 60’s and the socio-political background that spawned somebody like Charlie Manson and his loving followers it would be perfect. However that might have meant a six hour mini-series rather than a two part three hour Telefilm that this is. A commendable effort, one of the best films related to a “true crime”.