Helter Skelter (1976)

In 1976, television was awfully brave to tackle Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter,” the towering and authoritative book about the law and order side of the Manson murders (Bugliosi is the main character, not Manson).  A book is one thing, because though it often reads like the most outlandish of fictional murder stories, a book gives the reader some distance.  A movie is in-you-face, and this is only a few years after the events.  There were still to be dramatic twists in the lives of those involved (not the least of which would be Manson’s ever-frightening behavior at every hearing), but none of that matters.  We’re not discussing the Manson murders here, but the TV miniseries version of “Helter Skelter,” those eerie words written in blood at one of the crime scenes (except it was misspelled there, but no matter).

There was a television remake in 2004 that took advantage of new information, but it’s completely forgettable and beyond our scope here.

The movie actually begins with a warning that the story is true.  In 1979, this was necessary.  Thirty years or so later, it’s to the Manson murders that every other murder in the country is compared.  Everything is possible and everything is believable.

To that effect, I should say that it’s nearly impossible to actually pick apart “Helter Skelter” as I so lovingly have done to so many other pieces, good and bad.  The movie unravels like a documentary, with actual narration and huge chunks of the court testimony word-for-word from the court transcripts.  There is very little attempt at characterization (except for one notable case) in order to make it all seem so realistic, which is awe-inspiring all by itself.

August 9, 1969.  In the Los Angeles hills, screams and heard and gunshots fired, but no one quite knows what to report to the police.  It’s not until a maid discovers bodies that the police are called to a specific location.  The bodies at Sharon’s house are identified and a suspect is held, the only man on the property still alive, Willie Garreston (John Gries).  The detective administering the lie detector note that Willie seems nervous.  “Wouldn’t you be?” Will understandably says.  He doesn’t actually remember anything.  Another set of detectives are reminded of their case, which has similar clues left, but their suspect is in jail.

Two nights later, the LaBiancas are found, but the press declares that the two murders are unrelated and Willie is released.  The reporters are told that the Tate murders were drug related, not so with the LaBiancas.  Much of the police force is rather blase about the whole thing, seeing just two unrelated cases.

But, a week later, there is a raid on a ranch for an auto theft ring that turns up the Manson Family.  Manson himself (Steve Railsback) is dug up from under the house and the rest of the now-familiar faces and their aliases are rounded up.  Manson has aliases such as “Jesus Christ” and “God,” but was famously born without a first name and took his last name from one of his mother’s men.  He’s spent nearly half of his life in prison and he has a hypnotic effect on everyone.  He even has them singing on the bus to jail.

On September 1, a boy finds a gun in his yard, and put into evidence.  At the same time, the Manson Family is released, with no one at all suspecting them of murder.  A sheriff investigating another case sends the LaBianca cops back to the ranch to talk to Shorty Shea (John Fain) because he might have some information linking everything.  Unfortunately, Shorty is gone from the ranch.  By the middle of October, two girls flag down a police car, running from Charles Manson, who had been arrested two days prior for arson, along with the whole gang.  It’s these two girls who know the details of the murders.

They first link Susan Atkins (Nancy Wolfe) to the Hindman murders and she tells them all the details, but refuses to commit her story to a recording.  Why tell them?  “For fun,” she chirps.  But, in prison, she’s quite a chatterbox.  “Everybody does what he says, even when he doesn’t say,” she tells a fellow inmate.  “He’s our father.  He’s our leader.  He’s our love.  He’s our teacher.  He’s everything,” she continues and then confesses that “Charlie’s Jesus Christ.”  She says she was the Hindman murderer, not an accomplice and then brazenly boasts that she was part of the Tate murders.

Three months after the murders, Vincent Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) is assigned to the case.  He has a fantastic record of conviction, but there’s a hitch.  Because of a California law, the statements the defendants made against each other cannot be used.  But, Vincent has Danny DeCarlo (Rudy Ramos) willing to “snitch” as long as Manson never finds out, and also if the DA drops certain charges against him.

Danny is taken to the ranch, in handcuffs as requested, to confront the Family members still there.  Danny links the Buntline gun to Manson, not to mention a whole other slew of murders.  “Shorty’s buried around here somewhere, in nine different graves,” he says, though he refuses to talk about the Tate murders.  However, Susan is still telling her fellow prisoners about the murders, going into particularly graphic detail about killing Sharon Tate.  “I loved her.  In order to kill her, I was killing myself when I killed her,” Susan says, delving into the warped brainwashing that Manson fed them.  She also cops to the LaBianca murders and future murders that are being planned.  Manson has them believing that killing people is actually a way of loving them, so Susan doesn’t see anything wrong with what she’s done.

Susan has told all of the details to Ronnie Howard (Sondra Blake), who tries to tell the cops at the prison everything she knows, but they don’t believe her.  So, she calls the homicide division.  However, Bugliosi can’t pin anything on Manson because the police can’t find the gun (which is sitting in evidence), and because he technically did not kill anyone.  They are holding him on the arson charge, but they can’t hold him forever.  There is even talk of giving Susan Atkins a deal to tell all.  The other problem is there is no motive.  However, that’s just the point to Bugliosi: Manson brainwashed everyone to do it, so it’s a conspiracy, it’s not based on an actual motive.  Good luck proving that one!

“Charlie’s a Hitler nut,” a DA from a neighboring county tells Bugliosi when he takes him to another ranch where the Family lived.  Bugliosi is told about murders, orgies, all sorts of terrible behavior.  Bugliosi is there hoping to find perhaps some clothes stolen from the LaBiancas or the shoe that left a heel print at the Tate crime scene.  No luck.  The place is such a mess that one detective says of the clothes, “they should be cleaned first and then burned!”

Bugliosi tracks down two of the female Manson Family murders who happily talk about Charlie, who is all about love.  They don’t seem like anything but hippies, though hippies who believe their cult leader is Jesus Christ.  They can’t say where they were on the nights of the murders because “there is no time, there’s only love,” and also because Charlie outlawed all sorts of clocks and calendars.  Bugliosi needs to find a way to get Manson before he can escape, and Charlie knows it, giving Bugliosi a series of stares that are every bit as freaky as the real Manson (Railsback nails the role).

It’s Danny who gives Bugliosi something of a motive, that if the Family killed “the pigs,” by which he meant “the establishment,” and blame it on the blacks, a race war will start.  That’s as straight as Manson’s thought process worked.

Next to be interrogated is Leslie Van Houten (Cathey Paine).  She claims not to be at the murder scene, but knows there were only four people there, none being Manson, but Leslie is freaked when she hears one of the Family members died “playing Russian roulette,” and doesn’t tell them much.  The info does lead to the arrests of Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian.  Watson’s fingerprint is found at the Tate residence, the first actual piece of evidence they have.

By December, Linda Kasabian (Marilyn Burns) turns herself in.  Susan testifies to the Grand Jury about Manson, going on about her love for him, but stops short of ever actually holding him responsible for anything.  She admits to be “programmed.”  “The words coming from Charlie’s mouth did not come from inside him.  They come from the ‘infinite,'” she tells the the court, completely convinced of everything she’s saying.  Discussing the night of the murders, she opens says that they were told to go to the Melcher residence (which Tate was renting), take money and kill anyone there.  In a flat voice, she tells of how Linda stayed outside while Tex Watson did all the killing.  She confesses to writing “pig” on the door with Sharon’s blood, but not that she actually killed anyone.  “I went the car down and went to bed.  I made love to someone…maybe I imagined it,” she says about how she ended the night of the Tate murders.

Still on the stand, Susan talks about the LaBianca murders, but this time she slips and says Charlie went with them to the house.  Her retelling of the LaBianca murders is even more mundane, explaining what “helter skelter” meant to Charlie.  Susan’s story is fascinating, but “it just makes a tough trial tougher.”  Indictments are given against Leslie, Susan, Tex, Patricia, Linda and Manson himself, though the case isn’t much.  Bugliosi can’t use Susan’s grand jury testimony in this case, so he really needs more evidence, especially to “nail the little bastard.”  “With what we’ve got right now, the judge is likely to throw out the case before we even get to trial,” Bugliosi tells a detective before the first hearing.  However, the judge grants a continuance and the girls taunt “Mr. BuGliosi” about Manson’s speaking to them through the airwaves.

It doesn’t get creepier than the scene where Manson is brought into court for a pre-trial hearing and Bugliosi’s infallible watch stops.  Manson laughs, bug-eyed and content.

As the case is starting in court, it’s not the police who crack the case, but first the news, who follow the path laid out by Susan Atkins and find the clothing she discussed discarding.  The man who turned in the gun found by his son, is convinced that the gun was the one used at the Tate murders, but the police refuse to even listen to him.  It’s not until he calls the news that the gun is found ignored in police custody.  Forensic tests show it’s the one used at the Tate murders.  “We could have had that gun months ago!” Bugliosi rails, but the police are just as quick to blame the DA.  They still have to tie the gun to Manson himself.

Speaking of that little pipsqueak, he gets to testify, asking to be his own attorney and delivering speeches without blinking, the only person in the entire 1970s decade to do so without illegal narcotics.  The only two people who can be tied forensically to the murders, Tex and Patricia, cannot be used because they are in other states who will not extradite them.  Bugliosi tricks Manson by pretending their case is ready, but Manson says he’s not and thus another continuance is granted, helpful to the prosecution.

Linda Kasabian wants a deal, but Bugliosi refuses, because they have one with Atkins.  Things keep going in circles, with Charlie all but untouchable.  “Where is the missing link?” Bugliosi is asked, meaning the motive.  Bugliosi is sticking to the whole idea of the race war.

Finally, Paul Watkins (Jason Ronard), a former Family member, decides to talk about all he knows.  He gives up The Beatles, The Bible, not to mention the orgies and the brainwashing.  Paul is able to translate all of Revelations into Charlie-speak.  It’s quite a conversation and it does finally nail down the race war that he so desperately wanted.  The explanation is inexplicably complicated and utterly ridiculous, but no one has been able to figure out Manson since 1979, so it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone at any point.  We only need to know at this point in the movie that Manson brainwashed a lot of lonely people who believed it.

More good news.  Susan Atkins says her Grand Jury testimony was false and refuses to testify.  So, they can make a deal with Linda Kasabian.  If she testifies honestly, they will petition to have the charges against her dropped.  “I just want to get it all out of my mind,” she tells them as to why she will testify.

But, Manson continues to make a mockery of the pre-trial hearings.  He pretends he’s Jesus on the cross, causing his followers to howel.  He forces the judge to resign, and he still wants to represent himself.  He finally relents on the latter, having a lawyer assigned.

When the trial begins, the Manson Family members sings gleefully outside the courthouse and the DA finds a way to bar them from the courtroom itself, deeming them all potential witnesses, who by law cannot be in the courtroom while other witnesses are testifying.  Thus, Manson’s ability to play to the crowd is limited to just his co-defendants.  As Bugliosi dives into his opening statement, Manson clowns around to giggles from his girls.  The defense attorney objects to Linda Kasabian’s testimony on the grounds that she’s insane, having “taken LSD over 300 times.”  But, the defense loses and she’s allowed to testify.  Her testimony, many times interrupted, certainly speaks to Manson’s ability to control his followers, especially a harrowing group rape of a young girl.  She claims he told them, “if you are willing to be killed, then you should be willing to kill” and they all believed it.  Then it’s onto “helter skelter” and his desire to start the race war, just the night before the Tate murders.  As she gets to the night of the murders, Manson slowly makes a notion of cutting his throat, scaring Linda, but she plugs on.

Linda is able to identify the gun used and explains how she, the other girls and Tex carried out the Tate murders (Manson was not present at those murders, that fact is indisputable by this point).  During the Tate murders, Linda was waiting by the car.  She heard the screams and sees some of the victims bloody and dying.

On the following night, Manson himself was present at the murder scene, at least initially.  “He said last night was too messy and this time he was going to show us how to do it,” Linda claims.  He and Linda left before the murders were committed.  The defense gets its chance to dissect Linda’s testimony, after a headline about Nixon declaring Manson guilty is seen by the jurors, almost causing a mistrial (luckily, the jurors all say they are not biased by the headline, which Manson brought into the courtroom).

Manson and the girls don’t help themselves by their behavior.  The girls chant in unison and Manson flings himself at the judge, who says he would have “defended himself” if Manson had gotten closer.  The judge tosses the chance at another mistrial and the prosecution rests.  But so does the defense.  The girls want to testify, but only to absolve Charlie of anything.  So, the tactic is to keep them from testifying.  The judge says they have a right to testify, so he voids the resting of the defense.

Charlie wants to make a statement, and the judge allows it, though without the jury present.  Here is Railsback’s chance to shine, playing one of the greatest villains of the 20th Century.  And he doesn’t disappoint.  His few moments of testimony as Manson, not to mention his other shennanigans, void his performance in the miniseries remake of “From Here to Eternity,” where is idea of acting simply staying awake.  Manson’s speech almost makes sense, blaming society for keeping him an ignorant worthless human, but the crazy part of him, not to mention those eyes, is more evident.  Whether or not he believed anything he preached will forever be up for debate, but what he preached was certainly unique, and obviously a lot of people believed it.

The defendants misbehave so badly that the judge orders them removed from the court for the duration, though they listen in a nearby room where no one can hear their outbursts.  It’s finally time for the closing arguments, where of course Bugliosi shines (this is his story after all, and everything possible is done to make the defense attorneys seem like a gang of idiots), giving a speech so fulfilling he could have won an election right there on the spot (though calling him “not Charles Manson but Charles Con-man” is a groaner).

Finally, it’s time for the verdict.  Seventeen months after the murders, the defendants are of course found guilty of first degree murder as well as conspiracy to commit murder.  Then comes the penalty phase, there the defense hopes the girls, now sporting the same X etching on their foreheads as Charlie, will feel some remorse.  They don’t.  Manson tells Bugliosi, “if I get the death penalty, there will be a lot of bloodletting,” now sporting a shaved head.  His outburts are increasingly desperate and all of them (sporting shaved heads) are sentences to death.

One scene that may have been somewhat imagined or, at the very least extended, is when Manson asks to speak to Bugliosi in the courtroom, only a few people around.  He says Bugliosi gave him “a fair trial” and he’s thrilled to be back in prison, the best home he’s ever had.  Plus, he gets “steady chow” and “can play his guitar.”  “I don’t need broads, there plenty of sex in prison,” he even chirps.  “I almost pulled it off,” he crows, but Bugliosi sticks a pin in that, telling Manson, “you’re not even important anymore,” that all he did was commit a few murders.  What could be more infuriating to an egomaniac than that?

Manson and the girls are spared the death penalty when California abolishes it, and all are eligible to apply for parole in 1978.  It’s only 1976, so the rest of the story cannot be told.

But isn’t that enough?  What a case!

Categories: Historical Miniseries

3 Comments to “Helter Skelter (1976)”

  1. Lauren 17 February 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    I have chills

  2. aurora harmon 30 June 2016 at 4:18 pm #

    ilove helter skelter from 1976

  3. aurora hARMON 26 June 2018 at 5:16 pm #