Helter Skelter

When the first version of Helter Skelter (1976), based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 account of the Manson murders and trials, aired the 1960s were a fresh wound and Manson twinkie Squeaky Fromme had just picked off the scab, resurfacing in 1975 with a pistol pointed at then-President Gerald Ford's torso. The two-part film, which started with the...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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When the first version of Helter Skelter (1976), based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 account of the Manson murders and trials, aired the 1960s were a fresh wound and Manson twinkie Squeaky Fromme had just picked off the scab, resurfacing in 1975 with a pistol pointed at then-President Gerald Ford's torso. The two-part film, which started with the Hollywood murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steve Parent, who had the misfortune to be visiting the Tate-house caretaker, was an extended courtroom drama. Though freighted with a squarer-than-square, Dragnet-style voice over, it nevertheless crackled with immediacy and the seething energy of newcomer Steve Railsback's performance as Manson.

John Gray's take on the material was made 35 after sinister guru Charles Manson and his witchy girls creepy-crawled into America's nightmares and divided the counterculture era in half: Before Charlie and After Charlie. Before Charlie, hippies were dope-addled flower children with dirty feet; After Charlie they were rabid wolves in sheepskin vests. Before Charlie, The Beatles' "White Album" was a record; After Charlie it was the blueprint for a madman's personal apocalypse. Before Charlie, Sharon Tate was a second-string movie star; After Charlie she was a martyr to the seething violence bubbling beneath the love beads and peace symbols. But while Gray aimed to downplay the procedural elements and shine a light into the darkest corners of Manson's charismatic lunacy, it lost sight of the big picture in the process. The Manson Family's blood-soaked spree rattled ice cubes in cocktail shakers from Beverly Hills to Belgravia because they capped off a decade of bitter social turmoil; serial jailbird Manson and his stepford sociopaths were just flotsam tossed up when the great wave of the social revolution began to recede.

Gray begins with the murder of music teacher Gary Ninman, procedes to the butchering of Sharon Tate (Whitney Dylan), Jay Sebring (Patrick Fabian), Voytek Frykowski (George Tasudis), Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Bennett) and Steve Parent (Lance Ohnstad), who had the misfortune to be visiting the Tate caretaker (Helly Nyks), and the subsequent murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. But it puts Charlie (Jeremy Davies) firmly in the spotlight; Gray spends less time in courtrooms with Bugliosi (Bruno Kirby) and more time out at the rundown Spahn movie ranch, where Charlie, his girls and sundry fringe dwellers live out a freaky fantasy of free love and revolution. The movie lives or dies on Davies' performance, and his imitation of Manson is uncanny. Davies nails Manson's sleepy Texas accent, his snake-charmer hand jive and his twitchy over-the-shoulder head jerk; slight and hollow-cheeked, Davies looks more like Manson than Railsback ever did. Davies even persuaded Gray to replace portions of Manson's scripted dialogue with lengthy quotes from his many recorded rants. But he's not charismatic — he's just buggy, which makes the slavish devotion he inspired more baffling rather than less. That said, Marguerite Moreau is chilling as Susan Atkins, the most bloodthirsty and coldly unrepentant of Charlie's girls, and Clea DuVall brings quiet depth to the role of conscience-stricken Linda Kasabian (played in 1976 by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE's Marilyn Burns) who fled the family's smother love and testified against them in court. Their efforts help make Helter Skelter v.2.0 a solid introduction to the Manson mythos, but not the kind of a bona fide nightmare that could have a generation checking under its collective bed to make sure Charlie wasn't lurking in the gloom.

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