This is a bit of a retro-review. Back in 1976, CBS ran a mini-series (I seem to remember two episodes) of Helter Skelter, based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor on the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969. When it ran, it was the 16th most watched TV film. Subsequently it was released in movie theaters as well. I remember watching this on TV when it came out and, at the age of 12, I remember it scared the hell out of me. Steve Railsback played Manson and, while a little tall for the role, was incredibly compelling and gave me nightmares. Nancy Wolfe’s version of Susan Atkins was creepy as all hell. Because of this, the book came into our house and I read it. For me, it was one of my first steps on the journey to being a true crime author. (Another being the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case starring Anthony Hopkins – which is also available now on DVD.)
I recently found Helter Skelter on DVD on Amazon. A part of me wondered if I would find it cheesy after all of these years. After all, it was a TV made for movie. My expectations were pretty low.
Is it true to the book? Mostly – ish . Clearly there is more in the book than can ever make it to the screen. It is clear that the screenwriters did what they could to stick to the facts.
Well, for the most part, the series has stood the test of time. I was still impressed with Railsback’s version of Manson, he hit the nail on the head from what I’ve seen of interviews with Charlie before his death. From a story-perspective, it is hard to tell the entire story of the Manson family and the horrible murders they committed, but this does a good job.
There are a few minor nits I have. The spots for the commercial breaks are many and can disrupt the flow. There’s no way around that. The production quality is 1970’s television, so things you will see that are not up to the special effects we have today. I am not a big fan of Vince’s character breaking the 4th wall and talking to the viewers, but it does help fill in some narrative on a complex case.
Some of the acting of the minor characters is marginal, but I have to admit, it was still pretty gripping to watch. Quinten Tarantio is coming out with a Manson-related film next year, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that doesn’t seem to fit the bill for me.
In an age of TV networks dedicated to true crime, the original 1976 Helter Skelter series is worth picking up and re-watching. It didn’t give me the nightmares it did the first time, but it was entertaining enough.