Few true crime tales have so fascinated filmmakers as the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders, from the two TV movies of Helter Skelter to the grindhouse and exploitation "dramatizations" to numerous documentaries dating back to the 1973 Oscar nominee Manson. And it is, no doubt, a dramatic story, symbolizing (for many) the bloody end of the hippie era and a shocking example of the sheer randomness of violent crime. But why is Hollywood so drawn to this tale? Well, first, it all happened right in their back yard--and the most famous victim was one of their own, Sharon Tate, the beautiful actress and wife of famed director Roman Polanski. But there are all sorts of peculiar connections within the story--from the vague Beach Boys associations of murderous mastermind Charles Manson to the star-powered clientele of hairdresser victim Jay Sebring. Those associations are, in theory, the topic of the new documentary Six Degrees of Helter Skelter.
I say "in theory" because Michael Dorsey's documentary is too all over the place to focus on a single thesis; that's the hook, but the film is really a wide-ranging examination of the entire case, in the form of a guided tour through the various places where it happened. And when by "guided tour" I mean just that--the websites dearlydepartedtours.com and findadeath.com are listed as presenters of the films in the opening credits (same as studios and production companies), and the film is "hosted" by Scott Michaels, a Hollywood tour guide who escorts visitors to the places where famous people died. Michaels is a weird, interesting dude, and Dorsey utilizes him both as a charismatic on-camera presence and as a fast-talking, hard-boiled narrator.
Once the credits are done, we start with an oddly out-of-tone prologue that introduces us to Michaels, fills us in on his background, and gives him the chance to show off some of his death memorabilia (scored with oddly chipper, up-tempo music). He eventually arrives at the Manson case, and you have to give him this: he is a wellspring of information about it. He then takes Dorsey's cameras on a tour through the entire story, and the places where it happened, going in a roughly chronological order--though, true to the title, there are plenty of detours and sidebars.
No detail is too insignificant for Michaels; when detailing the Tate murders, for example, he rattles off the manufacturer of the hand towel that Susan Atkins used to write "PIG" on the door in Tate's blood. Some of the intricacies get into the weeds a bit (yes, the fact that the Abbey Road cover was shot the same day as the Tate murders is a juicy bit of trivia, but what of it?), and not all of the road trips add much to the tale. But some of the footage is pretty remarkable (such as their late night journey up Cielo Drive on the anniversary of the killings), and Michaels is particularly good at debunking many of the urban legends that have sprung up around the case--such as Manson's audition for the Monkees (he was in jail at the time) or the countless celebrities who supposedly turned down invitations to the Tate-Polanski home that evening ("Everyone in Hollywood wanted to make the murders about them").
As is almost a given, some of the film smacks of exploitation; I'm not sure that the addition of gunshot sound effects while detailing the murders is necessary, and the inclusion of the grisly crime scene photos (in full, detailed color) is in pretty poor taste. There's definitely a home movie feel to the enterprise; it's mighty light on B-roll (we keep seeing many of the same photos and footage over and over again) and some of the handheld camerawork is shoddy. But is it even trying for conventional documentary? Or is it just an artifact for Manson aficionados, a videotaped version of the tours that sponsored it?
Six Degrees of Helter Skelter isn't much of a documentary, and it sure isn't cinema--I'm not sure what the hell it is. Except that, in spite of my intellectual objections to its scattershot structure, its questionable filmmaking, its exploitative overtones, and its lack of consistent tonality, I kept watching. The story it tells is a fascinating one, and the people who made it know that story backwards, forwards, and sideways. It's not much a movie, but it is compelling, fascinating, highway-rubbernecker viewing.
THE DVD:/ THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The letterboxed full-frame video presentation is surprisingly good for what appears to be a low-budget effort; color saturation is good, and no compression or other digital artifacts are present, at least in the new material. There is some old home video footage, predating the destruction of the Cielo Drive home (from Trent Reznor's time there recording The Downward Spiral), and it's in very rough shape (it's clearly been through a few generations). Aside from those clips (which are still pretty interesting), overall video quality is fairly solid.
The 2.0 stereo track is no-frills, but it gets the job done. Narration is crystal clear, while the music score is well-modulated and effective (particularly the creepy vintage recordings of Manson and the "Manson family girls" singing).
No extras are included on the disc.
I can't, with a clear conscience, fully recommend Six Degrees of Helter Skelter; it feels too much like a ghoulish exploitation job, or a commercial for the guided tours that appear to have funded it. But there are plenty of people (myself included) who have read Bugliosi's Helter Skelter and have seen the TV movies and the other documentaries, and there is something indisputably fascinating for those true-crime buffs to see these locations and revisit this grisly chapter in modern crime (and pop culture) one more time.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.