Sunday, October 31, 2010

Helter Skelter (1976)

Helter Skelter aired across the United States in 1976, much to morbid fascination of the multitudes. The made for TV film is based on the 1974 book written by chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. In the United States, it aired over two nights on CBS. In some countries it was shown, with additional footage, in theaters.

The 1976 film was directed by Tom Gries and stars Steve Railsback as Manson and George DiCenzo as Bugliosi, Nancy Wolfe as Susan Atkins, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre alum, Marilyn Burns as Linda Kasabian. Screenwriter JP Miller would go on to receive an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best TV Feature or Mini-series Teleplay in 1977.

Helter Skelter is based upon the murders committed by the Charles Manson Family in 1969. The best-known victim was actress Sharon Tate, who was married to director Roman Polanski, and pregnant with the couple first child at the time of her murder. The title was taken from the Beatles' song of the same name which appeared on the bands eponymous titled ninth album, which is more famously known as the “White Album”, that was released in 1968. It was revealed during the trial that Manson used the term, “Helter Skelter”, for the race war he envisioned, and the words had been scrawled in blood on the refrigerator door at the house of one of the victims. Many stories have circulated over the last forty years about how Manson had used LSD and repeated playings of the song to brainwash members of the family.

The film suffers from the same things that most made-for-TV productions do. And the hokey opening in which the narrator speaks directly to the viewers at home doesn't help. What does engage the audience is the strong performances by Steve Railsback and Nancy Wolfe. Railsback is electrifying as Charles Manson, especially in the courtroom scenes in the second half of the film. He manages to channel Manson's manic energy and crazy outlandishness with a terrifying accuracy, that leaves the viewer wondering about Railsback's own mental stability.

Wolfe's performance as Susan Atkins also contains the same kind of intensity but unlike Railsback's/Manson's mania, Wolfe's, Atkins has the cold, unsympathetic, matter-of-fact demeanor of a true psychopath.

Both the book and the film Helter Skelter are sensational examinations of the brutal and vicious crimes that still fascinate and hold our attention forty years later. They provide us with an up close and personal look at the murders that came at the tail end of the peace and love 1960's. For many, the murders are a fitting end to a turbulent decade that despite all its idealism, will always be marred by the violence of the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, as well as the horror of the Vietnam war.

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