August 19, 2009

MANSON (2009) and his HELTER SKELTER (1976)

MANSON (2009, UK documentary)
HELTER SKELTER (1976, US TV movie)

Real-life horror as entertainment

I just had a depressing week looking into the Charles Manson murders. While he's not convicted of committing any, he incited his followers to torture and slaughter two households on consecutive nights in 1970. Living outside LA in a sort of hippie commune, his 'family', Manson had failed to get anywhere with his band and was running out of money. He planned to take revenge on the society that excluded him by inciting a race war, the prophesied 'Helter Skelter', by murdering respected and influential white people, and leaving clues that incriminated radical black groups.

The first attack was on a house being rented by Roman Polanski and his new wife Sharon Tate. Polanski was away on business but Sharon and three friends were all tortured and killed in a frenzy. Sharon was eight months pregnant. The murderers were three women, one man, all aged about 20, Manson wasn't with them.

Watching two different accounts brought home the emotional devastation to the families and friends, and the panic that hit L.A. in 1970 when suddenly faced with random murderous assaults in the home. Like any big news story, the documentaries and dramatic reconstructions soon followed after the case was closed. American TV waited a fairly respectful six years before making Helter Skelter, and made extra money by releasing it as a film overseas. As recently as 2003, The Manson Family recreated the murders again and there was an American TV remake of Helter Skelter in 2006. Last week, a new documentary aired on British TV.

(2009, UK)

Neil Rawles' new two-hour programme mixes dramatic reconstructions, a little archive news footage and a long interview with 'family' member Linda Kasabian. She gives eyewitness accounts of both the infamous Manson 'family' murders. Everyone else who was there are still serving life sentences.

The reconstructions are OK, but while the actor playing Manson looks the part, he didn't impress. The actress playing Kasabian was far better, adding reality to her reactions as she watches the murders. She also evokes sympathy and generates suspense as she tries to escape Manson's clutches without meeting the same fate.

The saddest part of the doc was the actual crime scene photos, which I'd not seen before. These brought home how brutal and tragic the murders were, and should derail any anti-hero status of Manson and his followers. The case was all the more newsworthy because one of the victims was a Hollywood actress - Sharon Tate had starred in The Valley of the Dolls, Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (Dance of the Vampires) as well as the offbeat horror Eye of the Devil.

The documentary focuses on the events leading up to the murders, including a torture scene that puts Reservoir Dogs in the shade, with Manson wielding a sword. It skips the lengthy court case, which many other programmes have detailed. While Manson is a good documentary to start with, it's a huge subject. A look at Manson's life would be a story in itself, as he seems to have spent much of his life drifting, causing plenty of other mayhem. Not that I want to become an expert, but I'm still not clear on how on Earth he could influence his gang to such extremes.

(1976, US)

I then went back to see how this TV movie compared to the new account. Helter Skelter was mainly based on the transcripts of the court case, where Kasabian was the star witness, so it's not a very different story, but a very different approach. Even though it was sold as a horror movie, it's mostly a courtroom drama, the emphasis being on how the prosecutor can make a case against Manson stick, even though he hadn't committed any of the murders.

It begins with the discovery of the bodies at Sharon Tate's house, a scene made all the more painful by the reactions of Polanski's agent as he identifies them all. From the documentary crime scene photos, the bodies are even laid out accurately.

Despite two more murders the next night, the police still don't have any conclusive evidence and only by a stroke of luck, months later, inside prison, do they get the lead they need...

For a TV movie this has more good performances than bad. But as a movie, it's lacking stars, recognisable faces even, or glossy production values. It looks like TV, but the subject is far more gruesome than any other seventies TV movie.

The actors playing 'the family' are all pretty good, but the prosecutor and defender annoyingly try to outshout each other in court, and there's no insight into them as people or even lawyers. George DiCenzo as Vincent Bugliosi is also lumbered with several speeches and the movie's 'voice of the establishment', verbally slapping Manson down after final judgement has passed.

To hint that this is a horror film, the star of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Marilyn Burns no less, plays Linda Kasabian. She gets to do her frightened, crying bit as she relives the flashbacks of the murders. The Sharon Tate murder is noticeably not recreated though.

It's Steve Railsback who makes this the best Manson movie. His chilling, staring portrayal was his career-defining role. Since then he was an unlikely romantic lead in The Stuntman (1980) and had a recurring role in The X Files TV series before another chilling role as inspirational psycho Ed Gein (2000).

I'm guessing that the international cinema release of Helter Skelter was a 'harder' version with swearing and more violence shown, as well as being cut down to under two hours. This is the version that was released on VHS (the UK cover art is pictured at the top). But it was originally made for TV as two 90 minute episodes and has no swearing and less blood, to meet TV guidelines. I think that this longer version is the one currently available on DVD in a 2 disc set.

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