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Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter
Warner DVD
1976 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 119 194 min. / Street Date April 20, 2004 / 19.97
Starring George DiCenzo, Steve Railsback, Nancy Wolfe, Marilyn Burns, Skip Homeier, Christina Hart, Cathey Paine, Alan Oppenheimer, Rudy Ramos, Sondra Blake, David Clennon
Cinematography Jules Brenner
Art Direction Philip Barber
Film Editors Byron 'Buzz' Brandt, Bud S. Isaacs
Original Music Billy Goldenberg
Written by J.P. Miller from the book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Produced by Philip Capice, Tom Gries, Lee Rich
Directed by Tom Gries

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Television docu-dramas can get pretty tawdry - almost every big capital murder case in the last thirty years has launched at least one trashy made-for-TV movie or miniseries. Helter Skelter is not only good, it conveys fairly both the horror and the complexity of Vincent Bugliosi's gripping non-fiction account of the Manson trial. Casting the long list of real characters and mounting the sprawling story are both handled beautifully, and Steve Railsback is terrifyingly powerful as Charles Manson. His portrait of a demonic, inspired criminal with an almost supernatural control over his followers wasn't bettered until Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.


Hollywood, 1969: DA Vincent Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) is given the unenviable task of prosecuting the Tate-LaBianca killings. He's confronted with a bottomless maze of suspects, co-defendants and crimes that the cops want to chalk up as a drug massacre. Evidence is ignored and leads aren't followed. Eventually Bugliosi realizes that the monstrous man behind the killings, chaos-guru Charles Manson (Steve Railsback) orchestrated the killings by remote control. To get a conviction means convincing a jury of Manson's crazy motive - to ignite a race revolution and apocalypse, from which Manson would emerge as the new messiah.

The book Helter Skelter was a nervous page-turner soaked in blood and gore that for many (this reader included) provided a first glimpse at how incredibly chaotic our criminal justice system is. Bugliosi clicks off the dozens of achingly incompetent acts by the L.A.P.D - ignoring key evidence, not following up on good leads, telling citizens with information and potential jailhouse witnesses to go mind their own business. In 1969 Los Angleles was still run as the kind of town where convictions only came from confessions and informants. The bizarre nature of the Manson killings was like a smokescreen of crime that didn't fit into the bureaucratic pigeonholes, and was therefore almost completely misinterpreted. The murder weapon was turned in by citizens only a few weeks after the killings, but was filed away by the police even though bulletins had been issued to look for it. When an eyewitness detailed the killing night in Bel Air, an ABC TV film crew showed up the police by recreating the getaway route and finding the killers' discarded clothing, right where the LA Times interview said it would be.

Although the glimpses of blood and gore are less graphic than they are in the book, director Tom Gries' handling of the edgy material was daring for 1976. Polanski's manager Rosner (George Garro) cues our own queasy reactions as he tours the death house, coming upon one mutilated body after another. Even better is the script's full coverage of Manson's warped philosophy. His grandiose racist schemes involved fooling the blacks (not the word used) into starting a revolutionary bloodbath with "massa" Manson eventually becoming king of the world. The show even retains Manson's chilling verbal assessment of his admired Hitler: "He leveled the karma of the Jews."

After that, the madness of Manson's method makes sense, and Helter Skelter fully exploits the cultist hold he had over his flock of hippie vagrants and killers. The women come off as maniacal zealots with "witchy" talents for orgies and slaughter - a real incarnation of the fantasy spider-girl killers in Jack Hill's Spider Baby. Nancy Wolfe, Christina Hart and Cathey Paine are terrifying with or without their heads shaved, and Marilyn Burns of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has her best role as prosecution witness Linda Kasabian. The cultish commitment of the girls to their master is like something out of a horror film and the snippets of Manson's con-man, sex-master control over them are best expressed through his girls' own testimony.

The scattered story covers several years and ranges from LA to Death Valley (perhaps the only segment not fully exploited) to "Tex" Watson's attempt to avoid extradition from Texas. Also well-covered are all the collateral crimes and victims. Adam Williams (North by Northwest is the luckless attorney Terrence Milick. We only see the ill-fated Shorty Shea for a quick moment, when Manson pegs him as a squealer.  1

The docu-drama miniseries reproduces many of the strong events in the book: Bugliosi's various encounters with Manson, including one where the DA's watch seems to stop when Manson enters the room; Judge Older (Skip Homeier, a previous generation's ultimate juvenile delinquent) clearing the courtroom of defendants after the Manson girls leap up to show the jury the "Nixon Says Manson Guilty" headline in the paper; Manson's own attempt to attack Older after a wild speech. Howard Caine plays Manson's Attorney Everett Scoville, with his incessant meaningless objections and calls for a mistrial. George DiCenzo, playing the author of the book, ends and begins the film by directly addressing the audience about the gravity of Manson's heinous crimes. I think both the book and the miniseries Helter Skelter have been important factors in seeing that the convicted Manson killers have been repeatedly denied parole.

Warners' DVD of Helter Skelter is a good but not stunning presentation of this landmark miniseries. Originally spread across two nights of viewing, it is here presented at its full three-hour length. Not having to sit through commercials and "bumper" graphics is a big help - the sound-alike snippets of Beatles White Album tunes are less annoying when they aren't repeated every fourteen minutes. The compression is scaled down slightly from Warners' norm because of the length of the show.

Helter Skelter was originally shown on network television, which means that instead of doing the many dupes and archiving copies made for a theatrical run it's possible that one low-con print was struck for tape transfer, and that was it. This transfer looks rather rushed and was quite possibly from a not-particularly-well manufactured film intermediate - colors are weak and some scenes are borderline washed out. It almost looks like an untimed daily transfer instead of a tweaked master someone can be proud of. It still plays extremely well, but it just goes to show the lower level of quality deemed "acceptable" for television work.

There are no extras. There are subtitles in English, French and Spanish. The box art and graphics are good. If you've never heard of this and have never seen Steve Railsback glare menacingly at the camera in his full weirded-out mode, Helter Skelter will be a big treat. I still find the subject to be frightening, and the miniseries makes me nervous.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Helter Skelter rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: April 26, 2004


1. During Savant's first semester at UCLA in 1970, some friends drove me to the Santa Susana Pass. We hiked along an interesting railroad line (used long before in White Heat) and climbed Stony Point. Imagine my reaction seven years later reading Helter Skelter to learn that this exact locale was the location of the Spahn ranch and the possible gravesite of pieces of Shorty Shea, and that known Manson family members and biker associates were still in the area when we visited ... we had walked by groups of bikers picknicking in the park. Pretty creepy.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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