While the haunting 1976 telefilm Helter Skelter is probably the best cinematic record to date of the circumstances surrounding the Manson Family killings, this Oscar-nominated documentary contains unsettling elements that add dimensions to the public’s perspective on horrific events that defy normal comprehension. In addition to stock footage and remarks from Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the filmmakers employ extensive interviews with at-large members of the Manson Family. Some of this material feels a bit dubious, as if the Family members rehearsed their remarks, but the viewpoints they express are so delusional, frightening, and outrageous that they illustrate the scope of Manson’s influence. Is Manson essential viewing for anyone except those fascinated with this particular subculture? Probably not. And has Manson aged well? Definitely not. But for viewers who can adjust their expectations to watch Manson the way it might have been received during the time of its original release, the movie has some power.
During their opening salvo, filmmakers Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick run through the familiar sobering statistics. One hundred and sixty-nine stab wounds inflicted during the Tate-LaBianca muders. A nine-and-a-half-month trial costing the state of California over $1 million. Some of the trivia, however, is gruesome—such as the fact that Family member Susan Atkins had a 10-month-old child at home while she murdered actress Sharon Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant at the time. And when the filmmakers cut to extensive interviews with cellmates of convicted Family members, some moments comprise pure shock value. According to these questionable sources, Atkins relished sucking the blood from a man who slashed his own throat while they had sex, and she wanted to repeat the macabre ritual with Tom Jones. Another alleged Family plan involved killing Frank Sinatra, skinning him, stitching the flesh into purses, and selling the keepsakes to hippies. One wonders what the purpose was of including this material, other to than to stoke public fears, seeing as how some members of the Family remained free. (One such person, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, later made an attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life, leading to court-ordered limits on the distribution of this documentary lest it taint the opinions of potential jurors.)
Yet the most unusual scenes in Manson are more unsettling than out-and-out shocking. The filmmakers augment their on-camera interviews by showing vignettes of the Family members hanging out at Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, where the cultists live a dark version of the hippie dream. One moment, they bathe and swim naked in a stream, and the next, they describe their unyielding loyalty to convicted felon Manson. “When Charlie gets out, it’s on—the revolution is on,” says Family member Sandy Goode, referring to Manson’s twisted vision of a race war to upend the power structure in America. Taking the rhetoric to a more philosophical level is the Family member who says, “As long as any one of us is in jail, all of us are in jail—we’re all one body, one spirit.” To a one, each Family member shown onscreen is so detached from reality as to seem insane or warped by drug use, if not both, which raises another question about the filmmakers’ intentions. Was the goal to present the story of Manson and his followers objectively, or to create the nonfiction equivalent of a horror movie? The sometimes condescending and manipulative qualities of Manson’s music and narration favor the latter interpretation.