When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide

After watching tonight’s TV movie of Helter Skelter I’m convinced that CBS needs to hire a house psychiatrist. Some hack named John Gray (he made the crappy TV movie about Lewis and Martin a couple years back) wrote and directed this thing, but like CBS’s regular series CSI and Without a TraceHelter Skelter feels aimed at emotional shut-ins, and plays on their phobic view of the world by scaring them sick with frightening ghoulish airs. The emphasis is less on the physical violence than its psychological effect; a naive but heavy feeling of “What if this happened to you?” is buttered over every gesture and line. In all of the show’s three hours, only one brief shot – Patricia Krenwinkel, seen from afar, tackling Abigail Folger in her nightgown on the Cielo Drive lawn captures the horror of those August nights. But what really kills the show is its constant and unnecessary nods to yuckily conventional family values, in such touches as Manson’s insistence that The Family’s children be raised communally, or the wistfully pained looks that Krenwinkel’s and Linda Kasabian’s parents throw over their children like fallout clouds.


Jeremy Davies may be able to strike all the poses that Manson made familiar in his still photos, but he can’t come close to finding the man’s interior. He speaks in a strangled whisper instead of Manson’s unabashed near-shout of a voice, and he delivers Manson’s soliloquies while whirling around like a Deadhead who’s snorted too much nutmeg; he’s even more over-the-top than the real Manson, but in such a flibbertigibbet, lightweight way that he’d never draw anyone into his web. His speeches sound like babytalk, and don’t carry any of the offbeat sense that made some of Manson’s declarations hard to dismiss entirely. What made Helter Skelter the book such an interesting read was Vincent Bugliosi’s willingness to see more than a monster in Charles Manson. Again and again, he makes it clear that he also found him a genuinely interesting man, and in support of that idea he quotes Manson on such occasions as the time he told a reporter, “You’re in prison more than I am. You’ve got more rules to live by than I do. I can sit down and relax. Can you?“


I’m no Jeremy Davies fan but I’m fairly confident that the fault isn’t all his this time around. Only one character in the entire production the biker Danny DeCarlo (here called “Joey Dimarco” and played by Hal Ozsan), who filled in some important gaps for Bugliosi – is fleshed out enough to believably have a life away from our view. The others are mannequins and stereotypes, delivered by half-present actors who look like they’re already thinking about their next project. It makes sense that the character called Charles “Tex” Watson is a blur since the actual Watson’s most notable trait has been his inability to come into focus even after 35 years a lack of definition that almost certainly made him easy prey for Manson. But people like Squeaky Fromme and especially Susan Atkins (Sandra Good isn’t represented in any form) would’ve been treated as the memorable grotesques they were by anyone truly interested in The Family. As it is, the girls are wholly interchangeable not only with each other, but with all the other empty-eyed smilers who fall into cults on network TV, and their healthy model’s looks are yet another indication of how off-the-mark John Gray’s take is: the real-life Krenwinkel’s extreme homeliness provided an opening that Manson leveraged with great skill, yet in the show she’s a raven-haired beauty. Such rough parsings of the facts abound, and Gray’s liberties with the truth hit rock-bottom in the pre-slaughter chitchat about marital fidelity that he stuffs into the mouths of Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring. Oh, what the hell they’re dead now, aren’t they?


Helter Skelter is so careful not to offend anyone, at least on any but moral or aesthetic grounds, that it doesn’t even hazard a guess as to what Charles Manson meant to America, or why his story might rate a second TV rendition so many years after the fact. A brief montage contrasts a smugly punch-worthy Jerry Rubin telling us “I fell in love with Charlie Manson the first time I saw his cherub face” with a frizzy-haired (presumably fictional) chick disavowing The Family on behalf of hippiedom everywhere, but that’s about as deep as it gets. Manson’s fascinating connections to organized cults, or the three-ring epic trial that resulted from the murders – these things Gray can’t find room for. Even the overworked hypothesis that the murders (along with Altamont, natch) somehow “killed” the ’60s counterculture, and all that yada-yada, is too intellectual, too rarefied, for Gray to get his tiny little mind around. His lack of real interest in his material is most apparent in the quickness with which he wraps up the proceedings: an opaque jailhouse sit-down between Bugliosi and Manson shifts to one last flashback of Charlie preaching to The Family as some subtitles inform us that while everyone was found guilty, thanks to California throwing out the death penalty they’re now all serving life terms with the possibility of parole. (Emphasis in the original.) What the epilogue doesn’t point out is that only Leslie Van Houten, who “merely” stabbed Rosemary LaBianca’s corpse, is considered to have even a slim shot at hitting the streets anytime soon, or that Steve Grogan who participated in one of the group’s less notorious murders and whom even the other Family members considered crazy was paroled in 1988 with Bugliosi’s tacit blessing.

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