Helter Skelter (1976), directed by Tom Gries

(Note: This has been cross-posted in Atheist Cinema and All Things Chthonic.)

I can remember when this came out. I was just 6 or 7 at the time, and I can remember that although I didn’t know what it was about, I knew it was supposed to be scary, and I was indeed scared, especially of the women who shaved their heads. I can recall how shocking that was considered.

However, it was not until last week that I finally saw the movie, in spite of the fact that I have read and studied a fair amount about serial killers and mass murder.

So was it a good movie? Well, I think an important criteria for judging films is to take under consideration their place in time. Of course, a film can have a timeless quality to it, to be sure. But movies are always a product of their time, and they are heavily influenced by cultural mores, current events, technological advances or limitations, audience expectation, and the like.

As I am not an expert on 70’s cinema, I am hesitant to quantify Helter Skelter’s cinematic worth. It is not a terrible film but, but it is in many ways rather unremarkable. It is shot partially as a drama, and partially as a narrated documentary.

By far the very best part of the film was the acting. Steve Railsback, who played Manson, and the women who played members of the Manson Family were absolutely fantastic: very convincing and frightening. They were somewhat crazy, passive-aggressive, spaced out, hostile, and self-absorbed. You could have easily believed they were not acting.

The director also had the sense to exclude many of the main players from the screen. There were so many people in involved in this real-life drama, that it would have been impossible (and confusing) to try and introduce, follow, or explore them all. He sensibly concentrated only on a few of the main family members.

Although I think these murders are horrible and senseless, things like this don’t upset and frighten me in the sense that I don’t internalize the fear. I can look at it objectively, which is probably why scary movies don’t scare me, though I do like them. What is frightening though is how much Manson controlled his followers. He would make outrageous and contradictory claims, and they would just accept it as the truth. They thought he really was Jesus Christ, that he brought a dead bird back to life, and flew a bus over a flooded ravine. He even convinced them that killing all those people was a form of love.

That sounds suspiciously like that other thing—oh what is it—the name escapes me—you know, you know—oh yes, CHRISTIANITY! No difference what so ever. The Manson family and xtians, muslims, jews, and crystal-gazing newagers all have that one thing in common: an outrageous belief in the outrageous.

I do recommend this film, but more as a historical novelty or cultural experience, and not really as entertainment.

Incidentally, Steve Railsback plays another killer, Ed Gein, in the film Ed Gein, which you can check out here. It is a good movie. And here is a 2004 remake of Helter Skelter, which I have not seen.

Here is a review of the 1976 version from Amazon.com:

Based on the bestselling book by Vincent Bugliosi, the two-part TV movie Helter Skelter is a clinical but often chilling recount of the arrest and trial of Charles Manson and his cult for a pair of horrific murders in 1969. Character actor George DiCenzo is a bit dry as prosecutor Bugliosi, who must patch together a series of far-flung clues to incarcerate Manson for the murder spree, which claimed the life of actress Sharon Tate, among others; he and the rest of the capable cast (which includes Marilyn Burns from the '74 Texas Chainsaw Massacre) are completely overshadowed by Steve Railsback's disturbing performance as Manson. Railsback is the main reason to revisit this feature, which shocked many during its network run in 1976, but now seems methodical in its pacing and direction. Warner Bros.'s DVD is the longer 184-minute version of the film, which should please viewers accustomed to the 119-minute rebroadcast cut; otherwise, the disc is disappointingly supplement-free. --Paul Gaita


Here is a link to the Manson / ATWA site.

In addition to this review, I am attaching some songs and spoken word pieces. The first is the Manson Family singing songs written by Charles Manson, which were recorded in 1970 (I believe), and appear on the album The Family Jams. They are actually quite good for that era and genre. Kind of strange though, to think of these people killing others brutally, then singing and laughing and carrying on like this.

The second song is one that Manson recorded in prison, and the third piece is Manson speaking into a tape recorder. Not sure what it is about.

Tags: Cinema, Crime, Film, Helter-Skelter, Manson-family, Movies, Murder, manson

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