Offering a painstakingly detailed dramatization of the notorious “Manson Family” murders and their aftermath, the made-for-TV movie Helter Skelter features, among many other worthwhile things, one of the creepiest performances of the ’70s. Playing wild-eyed cult leader Charles Manson, Steve Railsback delivers indelible work. With his gaunt frame, quavering voice, and relentless intensity, he captures the real Manson’s disturbing mixture of messianic charisma and psychopathic menace. Even though he’s probably onscreen for only one hour of Helter Skelter’s original three-hour-and-twenty-minute running time, Railsback dominates the whole project. Watching Railsback-as-Manson preach about the beauty of an impending race war and the glory of rattling the establishment by committing mass murder feels very much like looking into the eyes of pure madness.
Based on a nonfiction book cowritten by Manson prosecutor Charles Bugliosi, who secured convictions against the cult leader and several of his accomplices despite the rigors of a complex trial, Helter Skelter gives equal weight to the activities of law-enforcement personnel and to the macabre exploits of the killers. Moreover, the movie blurs lines by showing the occasional ineptitude of people investigating the murders, and by showing the twisted joy Manson’s people took from following a man they considered to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. If there’s a major flaw to the project, it’s the way that Bugliosi is portrayed as a superhero in a three-piece suit, making logical connections that evade other people, rendering impassioned courtroom speeches, and standing up to the formidable Manson during one-on-one encounters. Rose-colored as the movie’s vision of Bugliosi may be, the portrayal ultimately works in the project’s favor because the straight-laced Bugliosi represents the order of The Establishment, while Manson and his people represent the chaos of the counterculture’s lunatic fringe.
Produced and directed by Tom Gries, whose filmogrpahy includes such robust action pictures as 100 Rifles (1969) and Breakheart Pass (1975), Helter Skelter unfolds in a quasi-documentary style. As narration and title cards provide connective tissue, the picture shows episodes involving cops, criminals, witnesses, and victims, eventually replicating the intricate tapestry of clues and leads and mistakes and victories that led to Manson’s conviction. The investigative stuff is compelling because of how many near-misses occurred before the Manson Family was finally incarcerated, and the courtroom stuff—much of which features speech taken directly from transcripts—is dynamite. The extensive testimony of former Family member Linda Kasabian (Marily Burns) shows what happens when a morally healthy individual survives a brush with monsters, and the many scenes featuring killers Leslie Van Houten (Cathey Paine) and Susan Atkins (Nancy Wolfe) suggest the incredible sway Manson had over compliant followers. Almost as maddening to watch is Manson’s attorney, Everett Scoville (Howard Caine), who batters the prosecution with endless objections.
Although Helter Skelter is widely available in a shortened, feature-length version, the original cut—which was broadcast over two evenings—has special allure because of how deeply it pulls viewers into a legal quagmire. In either version, the performances are never less than solid, even if George DiCenzo’s portrayal of Buglioisi is a bit flat, and the use of music—including cover versions of the Beatles songs associated with the murders and a creepy original score by Billy Goldenberg—is wonderfully precise.
Helter Skelter: GROOVY