In the late summer of 1969, some months after the release of the Beatles' classic self-titled album known as The White Album, Charles Manson and his cult followers began a murder spree which terrified California and the rest of the nation. The connection?
In part, the Manson clan claimed the Beatles were sending them messages through their songs. They named this internal messaging "helter skelter" after one of the tunes, not realizing that it is actually a term for an English children's slide. Manson had a hold on his followers so strong...they believed him to be Jesus Christ.
The CBS TV movie Helter Skelter was based on the best-selling book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Originally aired over two nights (April 1 and 2, 1976), Helter Skelter remains one of the most riveting and intense Made-for-Television films EVER.
Part documentary, part courtroom drama - and part horror film, the performances will leave you on the edge of your seat. It is extemely faithful to the facts in the case...a case that remains notorious for being one of the most horrific in criminal history.
There were seven murders in what became known as the Tate-LaBianca slayings. From the first moment in the film that we see a maid running from a house in the Hollywood Hills screaming "murder, murder!" to the final shot of a crazed Manson in his jail cell, we have to remind ourselves that this is a true story. Innocent people had their lives brutally and abruptly cut short - and most of the killers are still in prison.
While there were other murders which involved Manson that received less attention, the movie focuses on Tate-LaBianca. The events are told through flashbacks and we progressively see more as the trial unfolds. For those unfamiliar with the case, the facts are as follows:
On the night of August 9, 1969, while director Roman Polanski was out of town,
a group of Manson followers approached the secluded Hollywood house he shared with
his then wife, actress Sharon Tate.
The group was comprised of Susan Denise Atkins (Nancy Wolfe), Charles "Tex" Watson (Bill Durkin), Linda Kasabian (Marilyn Burns) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Christina Hart). On Manson's orders, they cut the phone wire and began a night of bloody carnage which resulted in the deaths of five people.
They first killed Steven Earl Parent, a guy who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He had been visiting a caretaker living in a small cottage on the property. Two more bodies found outside belonged to coffee heiress Abigail
Folger and her lover Voytek Frykowski.
Frykowski's head had been bashed in with the butt of a gun and both had been stabbed repeatedly. Inside, Jay Sebring was found with multiple stab wounds. A rope looped around his neck led to the fifth victim, Polanski's wife Sharon.
Eight months pregnant at the time, Tate had pleaded with her killers to spare the life of her child. "Look bitch, I have no mercy for you," one of her killers responded. Using her blood, the word PIG was scrawled on one of the doors. "Piggies" is a song on the White Album.
The following night, the same group...this time joined by Manson himself (played by Steve Railsback) and Leslie Van Houten (Cathy Paine)...went to another house. This one was located in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. They viciously murdered Leno LaBianca, the owner of a chain of grocery stores, and his wife Rosemary. Again, the killers scrawled words on the walls with blood, HEALTER SKELTER (misspelled), DEATH TO PIGS and RISE.
Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) was assigned to the case. At that point, the police had botched some of the investigation...including the failure to initially make a connection between the Tate and LaBianca murders.
They also ignored some important evidence, such as the gun used on the first night to kill Jay Sebring. A little boy found it near the crime scene but the police filed it away without matching it to a piece they already had in their possession.
Meanwhile, Manson and members of his cult or "the family" as he called them - were arrested for arson. Susan Atkins (AKA "Sexy Sadie") was in jail for her part in the murder of another man, Gary Hinman.
Susan couldn't keep her mouth shut in prison. She bragged to inmates about the Tate and LaBianca murders. One of the people she told, a woman named Ronnie Howard (Sondra Blake), went to the police with the information. The gruesome stories frightened her.
Atkins had told Howard detailed accounts about what they did to Sharon Tate. She described how
she wanted to carve the baby out of Tate's body...and that she even tasted the dead woman's blood.
Bugliosi began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Prosecutors originally made a deal with Atkins for her testimony but she backed out. They then approached Linda Kasabian, who had been at both crime scenes but had not been an active participant. She was now remorseful and had no problem turning on Manson.
Atkins, Krenwinkel, Watson, Van Houten and Manson were indicted. The trial was one of the longest and most sensational in American history. The defendants constantly disrupted the court proceedings, until they were finally expelled from the courtroom. The killers' motive?
Manson believed that there would be a great conflict between blacks and whites, which would end with the destruction of the white race. When the White Album came out, he was certain the Beatles were sending him signals, with songs about revolution and guns.
Utilizing passages from the Bible's Book of Revelations, Manson defined himself as the 'Fifth Angel.' A prophesied gatekeeper of hell, Manson believed he would become defacto leader of the post Apocalypse world.
According to Manson, blacks (an inferior race) would not know what to do with their newfound power and he'd step up as a recognized chieftain. By brutally killing a group of rich white people, he hoped that black nationalists would be blamed. And his plan would thus be set in motion.
The outcome of the Manson trial? The five received the death penalty, which was later reduced to life
imprisonment when California abolished its capital punishment in 1972. Susan Atkins (rightfully) died behind bars in September of 2009. Eligible for parole every couple of years, it is doubtful the others will ever be released.
Helter Skelter was one of the the highest-rated TV movies up to that time. The actors, in particular Nancy Wolfe as Atkins and Steve Railsback as Manson, are eerily convincing.
Marilyn Burns turns in a fine performance as well, in the part of Kasabian...a difficult role to be sure.
Horror fans might recognize her as the only survivor in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and she proves here that she was no one-trick pony.
Special mention should go to the terrific job that director/producer Tom Gries did in making such a horrific and well-known series of events so vividly real. Part of the movie's effectiveness stems from the fact that he shot as much of the movie as possible at locations where the events occurred.
Helter Skelter is a classic of its kind. Just be sure to watch it with the lights on. It's that good.