Monday, 30 May 2011

Helter Skelter

There's a scene in Natural Born Killers, where Robert Downey Jr's TV producer admits to Woody Harrelson that the Charles Manson episode of American Maniacs trumped the Mickey & Mallory Knox episode in the ratings, to which Woody Harrelson shrugs his shoulders and sighs "Well, it's pretty hard to beat the king". Such is the lofty position that Manson has long held in American pop culture. Screened over two nights back in 1976, the made-for-television Helter Skelter was a huge hit with a public still enthralled by the events of August 1969 when Manson ordered four members of his Family to brutally mutilate and murder Sharon Tate, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca...

Based on Manson-prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1 excellent book Helter Skelter, the film skillfully distills the book's considerable assemblage of facts from the case (as well as Manson's acid-fascist philosophy) into a coherent and compelling 3 hours. JP Miller's excellent teleplay is a combination of police procedural and courtroom drama - the first part focuses on the deeply flawed investigations of the so called Tate/LaBianca killings, by the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The film is especially engaging in this section as clues are left unchecked, witness accounts not followed up and for some time no correlation is made between both crimes in spite of some glaring coincidences.

Steve Railsback as Charles Manson
The second section of the film recreates the courtroom trial of Manson and his followers. We see oblique flashbacks to the night of the killings, and Steve Railsback, playing Manson delivers a showstopping monologue to the courtroom ("I'm a reflection of you. I'm what you made me"), full of spite and contempt. Railsback's performance is quite remarkable displaying the many shades of Manson's fractured personality, and in some scenes, Railsback looks eerily like the man he's portraying

Of course there are some omissions from the book - Manson's quite incredible past life, most of it spent behind bars for every imaginable criminal activity is summed up in a few lines of economical voice-over, and it's a pity we didn't get to see Manson's brief flirtation with the LA music scene - at one point, Manson was friends with The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, who was trying to help Manson kick start a career as a singer-songwriter.2

George DiCenzo as Vincent Bugliosi
Directed by Tom Gries, who made a career in television, Helter Skelter, looks irrevocably dated with its very 70's faces and fashions, and with its flat pedestrian direction, is pitched somewhere between a typical movie-of-the-week and more visceral crime films like The Candy Snatchers. George DiCenzo puts on a good show as Manson's nemesis Vincent Bugliosi, and among the supporting cast is Marilyn Burns in a rare role outside of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, playing Linda Kasabian, the prosecution's cheif witness. Worth mentioning also the excellent band Silverspoon3 who contributed some key songs from The Beatles' White Album, including a sneering take on Helter Skelter, fine versions of Piggies, Revolution, and an affecting, delicate rendition of Long, Long, Long...

Warners' US DVD of Helter Skelter is a decent enough effort but falls short on being a definitive release. The fullscreen picture is generally very good and far better than the ragged, blown out TV print that I've seen. Crucially though, the Warners edition is the version prepared for television and is missing a few very fleeting instances of bloody violence, nudity and some profanity. These additions were included on theatrical prints that did the rounds in Europe, but were seen Stateside courtesy of the Key Video release (pictured above). It's a shame Warners could not have factored these into their DVD version (which presents the original 2-part show as one 184-min film, minus the end credits of the Part 1). No extras to speak of on the DVD, but considering the wealth of Manson documentaries out there, hopefully Warners will take another pass at this important film.


1. Vincent Bugliosi's surname is actually prnouced with a soft "g" so it's Buliosi. At one point in the film, Bugliosi corrects one of the defense lawyers, such is the level of fidelity in the film to the actual court transcripts of the trial.

2. Manson also had a vague association with underground film maker Kenneth Anger through Family member Bobby Beausoleil. Anger claimed that the negative of his film Lucifer Rising was stolen by Beausoleil and is buried somewhere out in Death Valley. Anger subsequently made the film a second time and after mending their feud, asked Beausoleil to score the film after rejecting Jimmy Page's soundtrack.

3. Silverspoon were not just another LA session band, they were in fact connected to The Beatles by a handshake, with Beatles' road manager Mal Evans. Silverspoon member Steve Gries was the son of Helter Skelter director Tom Gries and plays one of the Manson Family members. Incidentally, Silverspoon's drummer was none other than Miguel Ferrer.


  1. Never seen this Wes, is it a UK or US dvd? To be honest Manson is not something I've ever investigated so to speak.

    I've loved Miguel Ferrer ever since Albert Rosenfeld!

  2. Good spot Mart, the DVD is only available in the US - I've stuck that into the review now, thanks...

    Yeah, Miguel is just great in Twin Peaks, and I always loved him as well as the suit in Robocop...

    I do like Manson I must admit, not in a weird groupie way (and there are those out there) but I just find the whole case quite fascinating. I didn't mention it in the review for fear of it dragging on and on, but Jim Van Bebber's 2003 film The Manson Family is excellent and well worth seeing, and of course I would highly recommend that everyone read Helter Skelter.

  3. Yeah, I liked him to in Robocop, but he will always be Albert to me!

  4. Saved as a favorite, I really like your site!