Based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's best-selling book on the Manson Family murders, HELTER SKELTER was one of the most powerful and evocative television movies of its time. In the days and decades since this movie first aired, we have become inundated with television dramas that delve deeply into the procedures of all branches of law enforcement, from evidence gathering to prosecution, yet HELTER SKELTER retains most of its initial power thanks to its no-nonsense documentary style, the intelligence of its approach to the material, and a handful of unforgettable performances. At three hours, the film may sometimes get tedious, but there is always some scene, some performance or some new bit of evidence that pulls us back in.
Reliable workaday actor George DiCenzo was cast as Bugliosi, and although it would not be accurate to rank his performance among the unforgettable ones of the film, he was perfect for the part. His calm, businesslike attitude in the part grounds the film, making the evil craziness of Charles Manson and his family stand out that much more strongly. The film is seen mostly through Bugliosi's eyes, as he slowly and steadily builds a case against Manson and three of his followers in the murders of Tate and La Bianca murders that shocked the country in 1969. The film also mixes things up with some other perspectives, such as a female convict to whom family member Susan Atkins confesses her part in the murders, and who desperately tries to inform the authorities of that confession, only to be dismissed time and again. There is also the story of a gentleman whose son finds a gun that may have been one of the murder weapons used in the killings, and his frustration in how the police handle and eventually misplace this evidence.
The real unforgettable performances, however, are those of Steve Railsback as Charlie Manson and Nancy Wolfe as Susan Atkins. While some have accused Railsback of being a ham, modern day interviews with Charles Manson show that the actor was quite accurate in his portrayal of the murderer. He was so good, in fact, that for many he is who they picture when they hear the name "Charles Manson". As you can imagine, this was not a boon to Railsback's career, although he later gained additional fame as the star of the 1980 cult film THE STUNT MAN.
Nancy Wolfe was equally brilliant in portraying the bizarre family member and fellow murderer Atkins. The lengthy Grand Jury segments of the film in which she casually relays many of the horrifying details of the murders are horrifyingly gripping. Her chilling portrayal of Atkins may have also hampered her acting career, as she only had a handful of roles since then.
I have read some people putting this film down as being one-sided, a typical "upstanding establishment vs. the evil hippies" story and not delving enough into the story of backstory of Manson and his followers. Sorry, I don't buy it. These events happened in real life, and the film is about how Bugliosi built a successful case out of what appeared at first to be a meager amount of evidence. I am really not interested in Manson's side of the story, or that of his followers. They were evil, through and through, and I don't give a flying crap about their side of what happened. The results - seven people brutally and savagely murdered over some sort of drug-addled idea of starting a race war - are all I need to know about these people. So, in short, for those who think this film is one-sided... kindly bite me. - JB