Helter Skelter (1976) – A Review


The ambitious 1976 television movie Helter Skelter, based on Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers. The film recounts the investigation and trial of one of the most notorious crimes ever committed.

Helter Skelter 1976 television movie Steve Railsback as Charles Manson

The story of the 1969 Tate and LaBianca mass murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers is detailed in a 1976 television movie.

Based on the famed book Helter Skelter by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the movie recounts the murder investigation by police, the issues the prosecution faced dealing with such a complex case and it attempts to offer insight into Manson and how his influence could be powerful enough to have others kill for him.

Helter Skelter was a two-night television movie event on CBS in 1976. It was one of the most ambitious television movies at the time. With the public fascination of the case, the publicity surrounding it and Steve Railsback’s creepy, unforgettable performance as Charles Manson, Helter Skelter scored huge ratings at the time and was one of the most successful television movies of its time.

It’s something of a clinical look at the events after the grisly murders took place. We never witness the actual murders, but follow the aftermath of what would become one of the most notorious murder cases of the 20th century.

Helter Skelter 1976 tv movie George DiCenzo as Vincent BugliosiThe film opens with an introduction by Bugliosi played by George DiCenzo, telling us what we’re about to see is a true story. Bugliosi becomes our narrator, which makes sense since this is afterall based on his book about the case.

Bugliosi’s narration comes in at points to help relay information and progress the story. He points out descriptions of individuals, helps us keeps track of the chain of events and evidence. At times it gets to be a bit stodgy, but it does its job.

We never see the actual murders take place, we only see others living in the hills of Benedict Canyon where the Tate murders took place. Individuals hear gunshots and screams in the distance, then the discovery of the horrible crime scene by the hysterical cleaning woman the following morning running from the house screaming “Murder!”

Helter Skelter 1976 movie murder scene Tate houseIt’s a shocking opening as Roman Polanski’s business manager walks around the crime scene, both outside and inside the house, and attempts to identify the victims for the police. It’s unsettling, disturbing. It’s not necessary for us to have seen what took place place there, the aftermath is powerful enough.

It helps the movie that the opening is so shocking and memorable, since the Tate/LaBianca murders will be hanging over the rest of the story and be a constant reminder of just how brutal, violent and dangerous these individuals are.

During Linda Kasabian’s court testimony of the night of the murders we see a few flashbacks to the night, or more like flash moments of each night of the murder. It’s not as extensive as you might suspect, but it’s enough to leave you disturbed.

Steve Railsback as Charles Manson Helter Skelter 1976It’s powerful enough watching it today, but in 1976 for television viewers this scene of touring the Tate murders must have been off the charts. I sometimes try to imagine what audiences must have thought when it first premiered.

I’ve talked with people who watched Helter Skelter during it’s initial airing and they describe how it really upset and scared them. Had the film actually dramatized the murders in more detail CBS probably would have caught real criticism for broadcasting it, concerns of exploitation and the amount of violence depicted.

According to IMDB, it says the film was almost not shown in California due to lingering memories of the murders. I am not at all surprised.

There are some fascinating, almost ‘too hard to believe’ moments that take place during the police investigation, which takes up most of the first half of the film – and I think is the more compelling part of the movie by the way.

Everyone is trying to make some sort of sense of these murders and police are trying to formulate theories and motives. All the while the police neglect vital pieces of evidence and failing to make connections – sometimes that are waving right in their faces.

One that always gets me is the short scene of a young boy finding a disposed gun by the killers three weeks after the Tate murders.

He carefully holds it by the gun barrel to avoid disturbing possible fingerprints. “I saw them do that on Dragnet.”

Helter Skelter 1976 movie evidence murder weaponWhen an officer comes to collect this evidence he casually just grabs it, undoing all the care the boy took with it.

The shot of the boy seeing the clumsy actions of the police officer is exactly how I always feel when I watch this. It just makes me want to slap my head and yell, “You should have put the kid in charge!”

The connection between the gun and the murders would only come to light months later after the boys father was persistent enough to continue calling the police and when his concerns are ignored contacting the press, which finally leads to enough embarrassment that the connection is finally made.

Helter Skelter 1976 tv movie Atkins confession prison sceneThere are moments like this of how the murder investigation gets bungled and there are so many near misses and strokes of luck that it’s not a hard stretch to accept that it was very possible the murders might have gone unsolved.

Even the capture of Manson and his followers is because of another crime they’re suspected of committing. Susan Atkins’ confession to a fellow inmate and her trying to get the information to the police of what she knows is an incredibly frustrating sequence.

As she’s viewed with narrow eyes, her tenacity to relay the information to police becomes a struggle. It’s another portion of the story that reeks of luck and how investigators had an opportunity to make a break in the case sooner rather than dismissing it.

I’m still amazed by the fact that after reading Atkins’ leaked grand jury testimony of the Tate murders in the newspapers (which was not meant to be made public, but somehow came out) a news crew had the smarts to retrace the drive she described and discovered the spot where the murderers ditched their bloody clothes.

One might think that would have already been covered by investigators, but it wasn’t. Sitting there for weeks were the discarded clothes just waiting to be found. Amazing.

Nancy Wolfe as Susan Atkins Helter Skelter 1976At times it appears like Manson was only caught and the pieces were all put in place more by sheer luck than anything else. The Manson crimes was not a great demonstration of the talents or organization of the Los Angeles police.

Railsback gets a lot of attention for his portrayal as Manson, but just an equally disturbing performance is Nancy Wolfe as Manson follower Atkins.

She acts so matter-of-factly when she describes the murders in her grand jury testimony. She’s very calm, emotionless, even as a juror becomes sick by her descriptions of what occurred. She commands complete attention. They toss in a few stringy notes of creepy music here and there, but it’s not needed. It’s one of the stronger sequences in the first half of the film.

One of the most difficult tasks Buglisoi had was trying to form his case and pinpoint motives behind the murders. He gets a crash course in Manson’s beliefs by former family member Paul Watkins. He sounds reasonably rational, as he recounts Manson’s beliefs regarding Helter Skelter, the Beatles, a pre-ordained race war, how he manipulated his followers to accept his preachings and why the murders took place.

Helter Skelter 1976 Charles Manson movie Bugliosi interviews Paul WatkinsHowever, as Paul describes all this clearly unhinged thinking, he still very casually says he continues to believe that Manson is Jesus Christ. Manson had his hooks deep into these very disturbed people.

What’s impressive about this scene is that it lasts a full ten minutes! It’s just Paul (played by Jason Ronard) describing his experiences of being in Manson’s circle and what took place at Spahn Ranch. The film has many of these extended ‘talking head’ scenes.

Despite the inevitable dramatic trial and the circus atmosphere that occurs around it, I always thought the second half of the film becomes less interesting than the first. It’s fine. It’s an effective dramatization of the story and Railsback’s Manson comes to the forefront – and he’s a real standout. He’s the one, sitting in the middle of this, who gives the trial portion a real energy.

Steve Railsback Charles Manson Helter Skelter 1976 trial sceneAs the unhinged Manson he commands the screen everytime he’s onscreen. I think even had he not been playing one of the most notorious criminals in history and his performance was just of a fictional character it wouldn’t have mattered. He’s still spectacular in this and is a big reason why it’s such a compelling film.

When he’s offscreen during this part, that’s when things slow down a bit. Unlike the first half where there is a variety of locations, characters and components to the case, the second half unfolds mainly in the courtroom and a variety of offices.

More extended dialogue scenes between Buglisoi, lawyers and police take place throughout. At points they do get a bit stiff and tedious. They aren’t as interesting as the earlier investigation scenes with Manson family members. There’s nothing specifically wrong with them, but they’re just functional rather than being as dynamic as earlier ones.

I wish they could have relayed relevant information in some other ways. There’s enough dialogue heavy courtroom scenes that take place, that it would have been a nice break from more added talking head scenes filmed very routinely in yet another office.

Helter Skelter 1976 tv movie Charles Manson trial scene Vincent Bugliosi

Railsback provides much needed flourish to the second half. There’s the emotional testimony by Linda Kasabian, the bizarre and out of control behavior of Manson and the accused girls in the courtroom, the judge trying to maintain some kind of order in this circus. Those are the high points during the second half of the film.

That’s one of the weaker parts of this – how Bugliosi is presented. DiCenzo is fine, but his Bugliosi is not a very interesting character.

We see two or three scenes of his homelife where it basically shows him continuing to work on the case on Christmas Eve and his lack of concern for his own safety by working on the case and that’s the extent of his character. He’s just a tenacious worker who is determined to successfully prosecute Manson.

Maybe it’s unfair to criticize DiCenzo’s Buglisoi. Afterall Railsback, the Manson family, Atkins, Kasabian, Watkins, are such powerful, bizarre characters that it would probably be impossible for Bugliosi not to be lost in their shadow and not come off rather humdrum by comparison.

Steve Railsback as Charles Manson Helter Skelter 1976 television movie

The pet peeves I have with the movie are minor. I still think it’s the best account of the investigation and trial and Railsback makes an indelible impression as Manson, one that hasn’t been touched since.

I’ve read his stellar performance here pigeonholed him and he had difficulty finding other roles afterwards.

For those looking for a dramatization of the background of Manson and the lifestyle his family engaged in before their August 1969 killing spree they’ll probably be disappointed with Helter Skelter 1976.

The 2002 film Helter Skelter that starred Jeremy Davies as Manson, goes much deeper into that story. You could actually view that version as sort of a prequel to the 1976 film.

There have been countless books, documentaries, interviews, specials, investigations into Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders. There is one recent one that I want to draw attention to.

I occasionally tune into the cable network Reelz Channel. It’s sort of a tabloid-y type of channel that specializes in a lot of programming about Hollywood scandals and crime. They air this one program called Murder Made Me Famous. One episode was about Manson. It detailed the story of Manson pretty well and what led up to the Tate Murders on that night in August 1969.

The standout piece of the program however was the dramatization of the Tate murders. Basing it on court testimony and evidence, they did the most chilling dramatization of the Tate Murders and what occurred at 10050 Cielo Drive I’ve ever seen. It’s very upsetting to watch and they really didn’t hold back with depicting the violence that occurred.

Murder Made Me Famous Manson Murders Penelope Costopoulos as Sharon Tate
Penelope Costopoulos as Sharon Tate in Reelz Channel’s Murder Made Me Famous episode of Charles Manson

Penelope Costopoulos was cast to play Sharon Tate and she looked so remarkably like her and gave such a fantastic performance, I still think about those scenes almost two years after seeing the program.

She was impressive in not just her appearance, but garnering sympathy and playing the terror that the poor woman must have endured. In fact, all the actors are quite good, the way the sequence is shot, it will give you an idea of what horror the victims faced that night.

The actor they cast as Manson didn’t look remotely like him however.

If you’re one of those with morbid curiosity of the grisly event (let’s admit there’s an macabre fascination many have with Manson and the Tate murders) the episode presents a very visceral presentation of what transpired. It’s a powerful and frightening recreation. There would have absolutely been no way they could have broadcast such a violent recreation back in 1976!

Helter Skelter 1976 tv movie Steve Railsback Charles MansonFilm fans are eagerly awaiting Quentin Tarantino’s star-studded upcoming film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which will be based around the Manson murders. We’re not sure what the story will be, but we know it takes place during the time period of the Helter Skelter murders and Manson and Tate will play roles in it. I’m sure it will once again reignite attention to Manson, the murders and the story that gripped the country all those years ago.

For those wanting to prepare for Tarantino’s film and get some insight into Manson and the events that took place the ’76 Helter Skelter still reigns as the best account of the Manson killings. All these decades later the original television film still packs a wallop.

If you’re able to track it down, the Manson episode of Murder Made Me Famous offers a compressed account of the story, along with that frightening, violent recreation of the Tate murders.

*Also, if you’re a podcast listener you should seek out the excellent podcast You Must Remember This. Host Karina Longworth covered The Manson story in a twelve-part series that goes into extreme details of every element of the story.

A trailer for the 1976 classic television movie Helter Skelter

A commercial trailer for the Manson episode of Murder Made Me Famous. Reelz Channel is kind of odd with their shows. I’ve noticed they occasionally broadcast the same exact episodes under different titles. I’ve seen this Manson episode broadcast as ‘Charles Manson: What Happened?’ It’s the same exact program only under a different title.

2 thoughts on “Helter Skelter (1976) – A Review

  1. From your description of this movie, it sounds like the title is very clever. Not only was Helter Skelter the name of Manson’s race war, but it also sounds like it was a description of the police investigation. From what you describe, it sounds like it demonstrates how confused the investigation was.

    That photograph of the actor playing Manson sitting down and looking up smiling at the police is very haunting. Looking at the trailer that you submitted, seeing the actor with his head shaved and wild-eyed really sells the image of the real Manson.

    I see that use the similar cinematography that they used on the TV movie The Bunker. Overly lit and very flat. I can only imagine it was because, back in those days, television was mostly cathode-ray tubes. Experimenting with the limits of that technology would not be a good idea. They couldn’t give it the proper justice that dramatic television today demands.

    Still it looks like competent Thriller in competent hands.

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