Movie Reviews 188 – Helter Skelter (1976)

Helter Skelter movieBased on Los Angeles deputy district attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive book documenting the Manson family crime rampage of 1969, Helter Skelter was shot as a short two-night TV miniseries movie by CBS.

Lead by Charles Manson as some sort of Messiah figure, his ‘family’ of young lost souls camped at various remote ranches and terrorized the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles in August 1969 with two consecutive house break ins in which the occupants were senselessly and brutally murdered. The first murders took place at the house of director Roman Polanski (Polanski himself being away at the time), the most gruesome aspect of that night’s terror being the blood curdling death of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant at the time. The second house murder was not far away at the LaBianca residence two nights later. While the two night spree culminated in the death of seven people, it was only, piecing together the murders, that authorities determined that Manson, both alone and with his followers, probably killed more than 30 people.

Disillusioned with authority and intent on starting a revolution, Manson hoped that the murders would be blamed on African Americans and that as a result of the accusations a race war would ensue. Splattering lyrics and titles of Beatles songs using the blood of his victims at the crime scenes, the musician Mansion believed the Beatles and other groups were hinting at the revolution and  he took it upon himself to spark the battle.

While not the first such killing sprees in history, the Hollywood locale, brutality of the murders and the uncovering of the past deeds of The Family and made Charles Manson a household name during the trials and his continued imprisonment to this very day day more than 45 years later (his original death sentence being commuted to life in prison when California dropped the death penalty) has relegated the Manson name to the top of serial killer notoriety list.

A rationale of simply being crazy was not the norm (not sure if that can be said today) and they really had to struggle with the fact that they were really dealing with an entire group of people basically following orders from a Messiah figure.

Steve Railsback as Manson nails the crazed look of Charles Manson, but there are so many other aspects of the investigation and other characters that his role is a lot smaller than you would expect. Indeed the central character is that of deputy DA Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) himself and all the authorities piecing together the crimes and trying to comprehend the motives.

Interestingly, Railsback went on to portray another serial killer in the title of role of the movie Ed Gein .

Helter Skelter bookHaving read Bugliosi’s book many years ago, I can attest that the movie, through no fault of it’s own, barely captures the horrors that really played out all those years ago. In order to get a sense of the carnage that took place, a lot of details and events have to be put under the lens, something that can’t be captured in a highly cleansed for TV and mere 3 ½ hour movie.

If you really want to understand the Manson story, I highly recommend reading the book. I can honestly say that it is the scariest book I’ve ever read even when comparing it with the numerous horror fiction titles I’ve read over the years. The fact that is not fiction, but depict real life atrocities is what makes it so compelling.

But if haven’t got time to read the book, then this movie will convey the big picture, but only marginally so.

 

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