Review- Helter Skelter Made for TV Movie, 1976

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One of the best true crime movies ever made, the original, made-for TV version of Helter Skelter was first aired in 1976. There have been dozens of dramatic versions of the murders and Vincent Bugliosi’s book since then. This version remains the most popular – and frightening – film based on the best-selling book.

 The sense of foreboding is firmly in place from the opening narration. “One of the killers would later say, the murders took place on “a night so quiet you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon,” The narration is followed by a woman waking up in her bed, barking dogs, and a couple drinking cocktails in their backyard. The wife thinks she hears gunshots, but the husband sloughs it off and says “Let’s go to bed.”

The L.A. cops bumble almost from the beginning, as one cop presses the button that opens the Tate house gate without gloves. (And then there’s the kid who finds Charlie’s gun in the backyard, which the LAPD tags and forgets about for months, and the TV crew that finds the killers’ bloody clothes.)

George DiCenzo plays prosecutor Vincent Bugolsi in a no-nonsense way, as he plows through the case, despite death threats from the Family. In real life, he was more of a firebrand, but the performance is a fulcrum to the craziness of the other participants. Bugolsi is onto Manson’s modus operandi from the start.

 Steve Railsback was so spot-on in his portrayal of Manson, he was typecast and never graduated from playing heavies in  B and C films for the rest of his career. He was up for the part of the villain in Lethal Weapon, but Gary Busey got it instead. When you see Railsback, it’s often impossible to tell that you’re not looking at or listening to the real Manson. He even got the wild eyes down perfectly.

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Nancy Wolfe played Susan Atkins, aka Sadie, as a smug, laconic killer, and her performance is chilling even during repeated viewings. She nailed Atkins’ look and baby voice. The grisly details of the murders are made more chilling by Wolfe’s/ Atkins’ matter-of-fact delivery.

A theater actor, Wolfe has had roles in a few short films and on the stage over the past few decades.

Marilyn Burns, better known for the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, has one powerhouse scene on the witness stand. As Linda Kasabian, she stands up to Charlie, and its her testimony that helped convict him and the others.

 

 

All the girls are constantly mad at Buglosi and the “pigs”, snarling at prosecutors and the prison guards.

The interviews Bugliosi conducted for the case are accurately recreated. When Buglosi interviews Paul Watkins, Manson’s former lieutenant, the exchange reveals Charlie’s entire “race war” plan. As you watch Watkins (Jason Ronard) talk, you wonder how such an intelligent guy ended up with the Manson family.

“You seem like an independent sort of guy, not just a follower, yet you stayed with the family for a long time. Was it the girls, or was there some other reason?” Bugliosi asks.

“Because Charlie was Christ”, Watkins replies to a shocked Bugliosi.

Interesting side note- Watkins’ daughter is a Guggenheim fellow and author of an award-winning book of short stories.

There’s a scene where Charlie and the girls are on a bus to jail for Grand Theft Auto – before anyone knows the Family was involved in the Tate murders.  Charlie leads the family in a sing-along, which sounds much more ominous than 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall. Right here, near the beginning of the film, we see how he has total control of his followers.

Even the brief scenes of the girls in front of the courthouse are creepy. The girls made a vest for Charlie containing locks of their hair, embroidering it outside the courthouse, and we see Charlie wearing this vest in a few of the courtroom scenes.

Manson’s attorney, Irving Kanarek  (renamed Everett Scoville for the film) was a controversial lawyer who used constant objections and delays, even in his pre-Manson cases. In one case, Kanarek objected to a witness stating his name because the witness had first heard it from his mother, according to Bugliosi in the book Helter Skelter. Kanarek/Scoville was played by American character actor Howard Caine.

Since the movie was made in the mid-70s, the actors still have that authentic hippie/counterculture look. The clothes and hairstyles in the modern fictionalized Manson movies look cleaner and more “hipster” looking as the years pass. If you were around in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, you can tell the difference.  Even the biker characters look every bit as dirty as their real-life counterparts.

 Today’s films and books about Manson and The Family often have an agenda. They want to prove that the race wars theory was fake, or that the still-incarcerated Watson, Krenwinkel and Van Houten are political prisoners, etc. Strict retellings only capture the public’s attention for so long.

While some people looked at Manson as a criminal mastermind, the devil, or Jesus Christ, Bugliosi knew the truth. “His troubadour act is part of a con to get us to underestimate him,” Bugliosi says during one of his first in-court glimpses of Charlie. During the last scene, when Charlie talks to Bugliosi for the last time before being taken back to prison, he says “I almost did it. I almost pulled it off” (referring to the race war).

“No, Charlie, you took a bunch of sad kids and played jailhouse games on them.”

Many films and TV shows people found frightening as kids seem tame or boring when you see them as an adult. Helter Skelter has some of the over the top background music prevalent in 1970s horror movies and occasional jarring editing, meant to make the film more menacing. These effects may seem silly to some viewers, and add to the intensity for others.

The courtroom scenes still scare me even after four decades – when Charlie leaps at the judge, for example, and Sadie/Leslie/Patty’s orchestrated outbursts.

This made for TV movie was broadcast in two parts on CBS in 1976, on April 1 and 2.  Some affiliates showed the movie late at night, while a few refused to show it. Many sponsors refused to advertise during the movie. It’s hard to believe the movie caused such a ruckus; while disturbing, it was hardly explicit or gory. The verbal descriptions of the murder scene (and a few brief shots of bloody bodies) were enough to scare off advertisers and some viewers.

The second made-for TV version of Helter Skelter, starring Jeremy Davis as Manson,  released in 2004, features more details about Manson and life in the Family. Ultimately, it wasn’t as well-received as the 1976 version, and garnered an average three-star rating  on IMDB.

Helter Skelter is available on DVD and Amazon Prime.

 

 

 

Book Review: Member of the Family by Dianne Lake and Deborah Herman

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Dianne Lake, or Snake, as Charles Manson nicknamed her, was the youngest member of the Manson family. Her testimony, along with Linda Kasabian’s, put Manson, Atkins, Watson,Van Houten, and Krenwrinkel in jail. (“Snake” (Sydney Sweeney)  was the girl who kept a lookout on Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) during the Spahn Ranch scene in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.)

Lake’s memoir of her time in the Manson cult, Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties, was first published in October 2017. Manson died a month later.

The book is a riveting first-hand account of what it was like to be an innocent young teen thrown into a world of unhinged adult hippies. Unfortunately, Lake’s own parents started her on the road to Spahn Ranch.

Lake was born in Minnesota to a seemingly normal middle-class family, and had a younger brother and sister. Trouble lurked under the suburban facade. Lake was molested by her grandfather as a pre-teen.

Then the family’s lifestyle changed abruptly when her Dad became a hippie artist. He eventually convinced his wife to turn on and drop out, too, and soon Mom, Dad and the kids were living in a bread truck an on their way to California.

Lake attended the 1967 “Be-In” at Griffith Park with her parents. Her parents initiated her first experiences with pot and LSD. They also talked to her about birth control when she was barely a teen. Her parents met Charles Manson in separate incidents as they traveled in the drug-infused hippie culture of Southern California.

Eventually, Lake became unofficially “emancipated” and ended up living at Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm. He kicked her out because she was underage and having sex. Lake’s hippie-era experiences with men (even before Charlie) make you wonder if free love was just an excuse for creepy guys to sleep with naive young girls

One thing led to another, and soon she met Charlie  at a party when she lived with a married couple. Soon, Charlie’s girls took her under their wing, and she traveled with them in their infamous school bus with blacked-out windows.

In May 1968, the bus rolled into Spahn Ranch. The girls took care of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn, in exchange for free rent. Squeaky (played by Dakota Fanning in OUATIH), was Spahn’s “girlfriend” and kept him occupied while the Family dropped acid, engaged in petty theft, and had orgies.

Among other places, the family hung out next door to Rosemary and Leno LaBianca’s house; that’s one of the reasons family chose the LaBiancas as victims. Harold True, the next door neighbor, was an associate of Manson’s, and later become a witness for prosecution at the trial. In one particularly uncomfortable passage in the book,  Lake recalls how Manson flew into a rage and pulled her hair when she refused to sleep with True. She finally relented to avoid getting hit. Charlie promised to give her “zuzus” (his word for candy) after the encounter.

Manson’s quick slide from hippie cult leader into murder cult leader started when he met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Dennis picked up two of the Manson girls as they hitchhiked. A few of the girls lived with Wilson for awhile, and Manson became friends with him. Manson even recorded at Brian Wilson’s house. Lake and a few other girls provided background vocals.

Eventually, Wilson became tired of their antics and abandoned the house. Manson’s friendship with Wilson lead to an ill-fated meeting with music producer Terry Melcher. When Melcher gave him the brush-off, Charlie vowed revenge and targeted Melcher’s house at 10050 Cielo Drive. Melcher had already moved out long before August 8, 1969, the night of the Tate murders.

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Dianne Lake at the Manson trial. Photo via Cielodrive.com.

Around this time, the “Helter Skelter” race war idea took hold. The scene at Spahn Ranch veered from hippie LSD fests to survival training and killing lessons. Charlie also found a hiding place underneath the desert where the family could burrow during the supposed race war. The race war was an actual Charlie idea (sorry, conspiracy theorists).  However, in an interview shortly before his death, Manson revealed the idea germinated due to a drug deal gone bad.

Hell broke loose even before the Tate-LaBianca murders when the girls broke into people’s homes, including the LaBiancas, on creepy crawlies. These ransacking missions were intended to train the girls for more violent crimes.

One day, Leslie returned to the ranch and asked Lake to help her burn a purse and a credit card. Lake had no idea the items belonged to Rosemary LaBianca.

Watson drove Lake to a location even deeper in the desert. The police picked her up for vagrancy, and a kind-hearted policeman and his wife took her in for a few days. Unfortunately, her freedom didn’t last long and she found herself back with the Family at a new home, Barker Ranch.

At Barker Ranch, Lake listened in horror as Sadie and Patty proudly confessed to the killings.  Charlie, Bruce M. Davis, Tex, and Clem killed stuntman Shorty Shea. Lake looked for ways to escape and even thought about suicide.

Lake wouldn’t have to escape – a few weeks later, police raided the ranch and took the family into custody. Lake entered a psychiatric program and a doctor labeled her as a schizophrenic.

Audio transcripts of Lake talking to detectives after the family was captured show that she did have some grasp on reality, even after her arrest. She had managed to keep her humanity, unlike the girls in Charlie’s inner circle. After being held for psychiatric evaluation, and testifying against the Family, she started a new life.

Lake reconciled with her parents, got married, had two children, and a career as a special education teacher.

Lake received a phone call from a detective in 2008 about a cadaver dog that had found the scent of a dead body at Barker Ranch. The detective warned her that her name would come up once the media got wind of the results. Her husband knew about her past, but she had kept it a secret from her children. Now that  a new media blitz was imminent, she told her now college-age children.

Her son slept with baseball bat in his bed for a few weeks after she told him about her time with the Family.

Most of the post-Sanders and Bugliosi books written about the Manson followers are quick, sensationalized re-tellings, or self-serving tales of redemption (Atkins, Tex Watson). I haven’t read Squeaky’s book, but after looking at the cover and some of the oddly written Amazon reader reviews, I think I’ll pass on it.

Lake’s book is intelligently written, coherent, and honest. Lake admits, that, for a time, she felt comfortable with Charlie and the girls. They took over the role her missing hippie parents could no longer fulfill – they made her feel loved.

What’s especially disturbing is how matter-of-factly she writes about the sex and drug use she experienced as a young teen. You temporarily forget she’s recalling things that happened when she was 14 through 16. When it does hit you, it’s chilling and stomach-turning.

A Member of the Family gives you a view of the events leading up to one of the most brutal and bizarre crimes of the 20th century, and its immediate aftermath (arrests, trial), but very little about the crimes themselves.

The Tate-LaBianca murders have been covered extensively for half a century in every way possible. A Member of the Family gives readers a look at what life was like for the youngest (and probably most naive) teen member of the cult without putting the primary focus on the murders themselves.