Made-for-TV movie Helter Skelter aired in 1976, two years after the book it's based on was released, and seven years after the Manson Family murders it depicts were committed. Over time, it's become a cult classic among true crime fans, and it holds up amazingly well today. Here's why.
Despite so many years between the case and the film (especially when compared to today's turnaround time for made-for-TV flicks; the Jodi Arias movie debuted one month after her first-degree murder conviction), Helter Skelter feels almost like a documentary. Everything — the locations, the hair and costumes, the paranoia that gripped Los Angeles after the killings, the social tensions of the post-hippie era — feels incredibly real, and is rendered in bleached-out cinematography that brings the right amount of unease to an intensely dark tale that unfolded in sunniest Southern California. In some cases, actual crime scenes and other key locations were utilized by the production (although not, alas, Sharon Tate's house on Cielo Drive, called "Elysium Drive" in the film), and actual court transcripts were consulted to script the trial scenes.
Though Manson-ologists might argue that the "Helter Skelter" motive is just one way of looking at the murders (was "the Family" trying to start a race war, or were they copycatting an earlier crime to help a jailed member go free?), there's no denying that the book of the same name, penned by victorious prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, is one of the most fascinating true-crime tomes ever written. Like the book, the film Helter Skelter is very much told from his point of view; as portrayed by George DiCenzo, he offers voice-over (often lifted wholesale from the book's pages) and on a few occasions directly addresses the camera. Bugliosi is the clear hero of the tale, but the film, like the book, takes care to flesh out the other sides of the story. The SoCal cops who nearly bungled the case (there's a pointed scene in which one jaded detective insists "These are big-time dope murders!" to a pair of young cops who have some thoughts to the cult-y contrary) get a mostly fair shake, and Manson is portrayed not as one-note evil, but as a clever, cunning, black-hearted con man. This is mostly due to ...
... Steve Railsback, who plays Manson as a drawling, greasy mix of grinning insanity and barely-contained fury. It's the perfect foil to DiCenzo's side-parted, sport coat-wearing lawyer, a man who's used to doing things by the book but is nonetheless A-OK with thinking unconventionally when faced with a most unusual case. The supporting roles are also well-cast; standouts include Marilyn Burns (of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame) enduring witness-stand flashbacks as Linda Kasabian, and the supremely spooky Nancy Wolfe (pictured) playing Susan Atkins as a baby-voiced sociopath.
Veteran TV composer Billy Goldenberg concocted a synth-heavy score that ratchets up just the right amount of tension while stepping one toe ever-so-slightly into cheesy territory. It's the soundtrack to your grooviest nightmare, and it just works. The shrill, synth-strings musical cue that erupts anytime anything "scary" happens will haunt your earholes for days after viewing. Did anyone ever sample the Helter Skelter score? Because talk about a missed opportunity if not.
The subject matter alone would probably be enough to make Helter Skelter into a cult classic. A healthy amount of scenery-chomping performances, by Railsback and others, also help. But some of the most memorable moments in the film are the weird, inexplicable one-off moments that director Tom Gries allows to drip through from time to time ... like when the TV news crew that goes on a wild ride in search of the blood-stained clothes discarded by the murderers takes the time to flirt with girls who're driving in the next lane ... or when Bugliosi discovers an old woman living in a cage at Manson hangout Spahn Ranch, and is asked in the meanest way possible, "Isn't it all right to be happy?" These days, we can rewind those WTF moments, but can you imagine watching the film on its first airing and wondering if your eyes were sending accurate signals to your brain?
As Bugliosi tells us in the film's first minutes, "If the story were not true, it would not be believable, for it's surely one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of crime." And in the case of 1976's Helter Skelter, it's difficult to imagine a more believable "you-are-there" experience.
Top image via Seven Doors of Cinema.