Based on the best-delling book by Los Angeles District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who was in charge of prosecuting the notorious 1970-1971 Manson murder trial, writer-director Tom Gries' workmanlike made-for-television film is electrified by Steve Railsback's creepily compelling perfomance as muderous guru Charles Manson. The film opens with the August 9, 1969, murders at 10050 Cielo Drive of eight-months-pregnant movie star Sharon Tate; her friend, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring; houseguest Voytek Frykowski, an old frind of Tate's husband, Polish-born director Roman Polanski; Frykowski's girlfriend, Abigail "Libby" Folger, and heir to the Folger's coffee fortune; and Steve Parent, who was visiting caretaker William Garretson (Jon Gries). Garretson, who slept through the murders, is arrested the following day after housekeeper Winifred Chapman discovers the bodies, but later released. The killers — Susan Atkins (Nancy Wolfe), Patricia Krenwinkel (Christina Hart), Tex Watson (Bill Durkin) and Leslie Van Houten (Cathey Paine) — all members of Manson's alienated, commune-like "family," remain at large while various police departments mishandle evidence, jump to luridly misguided conclusions rooted in their fantasies about Hollywood decadence, and fail to connect the Tate killings to the earlier murder of music teacher Gary Hinman and the subsequent murders of middle-aged Leno and Rosemary LaBianca (Al Checco,Toni Moss). Two months later, Manson and several family members are arrested on various charges, including auto theft, and Atkins boasts to her cellmate, Ronnie Howard (Sondra Blake), about her part in the killings; she also explains Manson's ideas about "Helter Skelter," a term he took from The Beatles' "White Album," an imminent race war that would lay the groundwork for a new social order. Atkins' story helps connect the pieces and lay the groundwork for charging the family members, but Bugliosi wants more. He wants to try and convict Manson as the mastermind of his followers' crimes, even though he wasn't even present when the Tate and LaBianca murders took place. Eventually the testimony of Linda Kasabian (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE star Marilyn Burns), a late recruit to the Family who accompanied the Tate killers by did not participate in the carnage, helps Bugliosi win convictions for both the killers and Manson. First aired only five years after the end of the Manson trial, Helter Skelter captures the sense of sheer, baffled terror the killings provoked in mainstream American society. The Manson cult embodied the dark heart of the hippie counter-culture and the Tate/LaBianca murders helped usher in the end of the sixties. Though much of the film, which was originally broadcast in two parts, feels like a feature-length episode of an old-fashioned police show like Dragnet, Railsback's performance insured it a place in television history. Though the soundtrack makes extensive use of songs from the "White Album," including "Piggies," "Blackbird" and, of course, "Helter Skelter," all of which Manson believed were coded messages from the Beatles, they were performed by a mediocre band called Silverspoon. Helter Skelter was remade in 2004 as a network television movie; the new version focused more on Manson's personality and less on the ins and outs of the investigation and trial.
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