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Home | Film Reviews | Film Review: Helter Skelter (1976)

Film Review: Helter Skelter (1976)

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Steve Railsback gives a haunting performance as charismatic cult leader Charles Manson in this graphic three-hour made-for-TV movie about the grisly Sharon Tate/La Bianca murders orchestrated by Manson. Based on Vince Bugliosi’s novel, the movie demonstrates the almost hypnotic pull Manson exerted over his impressionable followers — a devotion that led to the brutal killings in the Hollywood hills.


Written by: J.P. Miller
Directed by: Tom Gries
Based on the novel by: Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Starring: George DiCenzo, Nancy Wolf, Christina Hart, Cathey Paine, Eileen Deitz, Marilyn Burns and Steve Railsback

He was born “No name Maddox Manson” in Cincinnati, Ohio to a sixteen year old unwed mother named Kathleen Maddox. He was renamed three weeks after his birth, Charles Milles Maddox. For a short period after his birth, his mother was married to a man by the name of William Manson. Later, Charles took his last name, but called himself a bastard. He was now known as Charles (or “Charlie,” to most) Maddox Manson.

His mother once sold him to a childless waitress for a picture of beer. He was later retrieved by his uncle and again, picked up by his mother some time later. He was sent to foster homes as a young child. His uncle was a mountain man and told him not to go to school or believe a word they said. When Charlie was nine years old, he burned his school down. Charlie was sent from institution to institution. Some time later, he married a fifteen year old girl and took off in a stolen car, living off of store robberies. He was imprisoned and paroled in 1954. Afterwards, he arrived in Los Angeles and became a pimp.

While in California, the hippie movement was beginning to blossom and Charlie was right in the middle of it. He learned to play the steel guitar while in prison and was soon introduced to Mary Brunner. He became well known in the Haight-Ashbury district and received a small following from most of the women in the area.

Later, Charlie had a small group of followers, men and women. He called them his family. To some of them, he was the only family they knew. He taught them the love of free sex and drugs. He taught them to live off of the land, eat from dumpsters and to collect and make their own clothing. Everything was about love, until soon (as they were staying at an old movie set called “Spawn Ranch”), the love took a darker turn. He wanted his family to die for him as he would die for them. Later, he wanted them to kill for him.

The family slaughtered Sharon Tate, a well known actress and wife to Director Roman Polanski. The next night, they raided another home and continued the ruthless bloodbath. In all, six murders occurred in two nights. The family was later apprehended and brought to court in one of the most expensive hearings in Los Angeles’ history. Many films were made (some in production) about this two night killing spree. Jim VanBebber’s The Manson Family is the most graphic of the crop. A documentary called Manson is also pretty popular and a new documentary about his media fame is in the works. Charlie’s Girls, starring Lindsey Lohan is now in production as well. The original pioneering documentation of the hippie clan from Hell was called The Helter Skelter Murders (Which featured actual music by Charlie, himself and was banned from television). This film, Helter Skelter, is the most popular of them all. It has already been re-made once in 2000 and Oliver Stone is rumored to re-make the film yet again. Charlie has recently resurfaced yet again in the news, as he does every so often.

AH-LOOK OUT, Slippies, it’s the notorious film that has probably spread the word of the Manson family the most within the years since their arrests. Named after the Beatles song, the race war that Charlie predicted, the message scrawled in blood on the fridge and total mass confusion… It’s Helter Skelter.

The film itself is almost like you are watching the family as you are sitting with them through it all. It opens with Vincent Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) as he explains what you are about to see… almost in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sense, but he is standing in front of the camera, instead of in a voice over form. A narration is thrown in every so often throughout the film, along with text to show the time of the event unfolding.

After Vincent’s introduction, the film goes right into the Tate/ Folger/ (Steve) Parent/(Wojciech) Frykowski murders. Directly afterwards, is the only( two seconds of) bad acting throughout the entire film. The maid is running down the driveway, arms flailing, screaming (bloody) “Murder!Murder! Murder!” Other than this slight flaw, the rest of the acting is awesome.

The murders of each victim are not seen, but the aftermath is displayed. One sickly cool aspect is after noticing Sharon’s body, a family friend runs out of the home and can be clearly seen in the background through the window throwing up in the yard. It looks like the special effects engineers used tubing for the effect, because it comes off (or out) on screen so realistically.

Only a few of the names were changed. For the most part, all true identification was used to portray each victim and viscous family member. A lot of the film is from the attorney/ law point of view. Everything from the investigation, to the court hearings. All aspects are covered, especially during the trial. Charlie’s infamous leap over the table and straight for the Judge’s throat is also depicted.

The bond between all groups on both sides of the law is also apparent when viewing. George does a swell job of playing the roll of Vincent Bugliosi. He seemed as tough as the actual character himself. Three of the actors have gone on to become legends in the Horror field. Steve Railsback (Ed Gein, The Devil’s Rejects) is the best Charles Manson I’ve seen on film. His performance is almost like you’re watching Charlie himself. Eileen Deitz (The Exorcist) is also among the now famous faces in the genre. Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was awesome as Linda Kasabian as well as the rest of the cast involved.

The score is haunting and well done by Billy Goldenburg. It is up there with the score to Henry in it’s own disturbing way. The music provided was by the band Silver Spoon. They re- made two Beatles songs for the film. I, myself am not a Beatles fan, so I like their versions better than the originals.

Speaking of bands that Charlie had some roll in… I do think they could have reached a little deeper into his history and portrayed his time with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. This was a big part of Manson history that was left out, along with the Haight- Ashbury movement. If Oliver Stone comes through with his re-make, I hope to see those aspects included this time around (even though I am absolutely against this re-make garbage).

The cinematography is well done in that “doc-u-rama” sort of way. A lot of hand held is executed throughout, giving it a nice “you are there” feeling. The gore score is around a six or so. Most of the violence is at the very beginning. Other murders were left out of the story all together, but mentioned in some cases. The famous line by Charles “Tex” Watson, “I am the devil and I am here to do the devil’s business” is absent as well. Still, that does not take away from the value of the feature. This is one of the most well known true crime portrayals in cinematic history. It should be, being based on one of the most notorious killing sprees and expensive trials in American history… and being based after the book by the man who stood in court as it all unfolded.

All in all, this important film is a must see for any true crime buff or “Mansonite” that has not seen it already. It is on sale for a pretty cheap price, due to its age and I highly suggest picking one up to watch in the safety of your own home. It’s a good film to see if you want to spend a night with a loved one(or alone) and watch something “witchy… Have a nice day.” I give this film, Helter Skelter, FOUR HORNS UP.

Until next time, this was Jay. Keep one foot in the grave one fist in the guts and your eyes out for gore. Later.

For a complete list of movies I’ve reviewed and upcoming book releases, check out my page at www.myspace.com/headlinesnovel. Look for the Horror Anthology, Moral Horror (featuring Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London) Available NOW at Amazon, Betterworldbooks Barnes&Noble, Books-a-Million, Borders, Powells and Virgin Media

One comment

  1. To add another sense of macabre to the film, the LaBianca house sequence was filmed at the actual crime scene. Much of the dialogue from the courtroom scenes was taken from the court transcripts. The 1959 Ford driven by Linda Kasabian on both nights of the murders was loaned to the producers by the Los Angeles Police Department.


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