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TV Terror Guide: Helter Skelter (1976)

Air Date: April 1, 1976 (CBS)

Production Companies: Lorimar Productions

Running Time: 194 min.

Available on: DVD (Warner Archive)

Written by: J.P. Miller

Based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, Curt Gentry

Directed by: Tom Gries

Cast: George DiCenzo, Steve Railsback, Nancy Wolfe, Marilyn Burns, Christina Hart

Rating: 8 vintage televisions (out of 10)


For a film about Charles Manson that avoids most of the gory visual details, Helter Skelter (1976) maintains for three-plus hours a style and pace that keeps its murder investigation and courtroom drama compelling, engaging, and terrifying. It originally aired as two parts on television. Viewers must have liked part one, because its ratings were exceeded during part two, making it the highest-rated television movie (beating The Night Stalker from 1972) until it was beaten by The Day After in 1983.


For some reason, this is a film I never saw during its original airing. In fact, I watched it for the first time recently to write about it for this series. What struck me about it, of which I was unaware, is its unique style. First, it doesn’t look like a TV movie. Second, most of the characters are not portrayed by recognizable actors. Third, it’s an unusual mix of drama and Unsolved Mysteries-style “infotainment.” What I mean is character Vincent Bugliosi (George Dicenzo) often breaks the fourth wall to narrate benchmarks. (He also narrates throughout.)


This all creates the atmosphere of a documentary. However, it’s dialogue, supposedly lifted from actual court transcripts, also lends to its authenticity. During most of the second half, when the trial begins, I got the feeling I was a fly on the wall of the unbelievable proceedings. It’s hard to imagine some of the shenanigans being allowed in a courtroom today, but this was over 50-years ago. In 1970, a defendant leaping over his defense team to lunge at the judge was not enough disruption to declare a mistrial.


Much of Helter Skelter focuses on Los Angeles prosecutor Bugliosi trying to squeeze a motive from mounting evidence, some of which, due to police department bungling, is slow to be discovered. Even in the end, he must rely on testimony from members of the “Manson Family,” which may or may not be reliable and is sometimes recanted as soon as it’s provided. Some of the defendants have also scattered since the murders and Bugliosi must battle extradition and other issues with other states refusing to cooperate with him.


It may have been an open and shut case for the people connected to the crimes by physical evidence, but Bugliosi wants to go after the mastermind, whose puppetry is more difficult to prove. However, the best witness for the prosecution turns out to be Manson himself, who cannot control his outbursts in court and makes a nonsensical “statement” that only adds fuel to the fire of his case. Steve Railsback plays Manson with wide-eyed fanaticism. Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is superb as Linda Kasabian, the key witness.


I didn’t know much about the details of Manson’s crimes or his trial, so Helter Skelter was an educational experience for me. I want to learn more, and I want to read the book, which remains the best-selling true crime book in history (if you believe Wikipedia.) I had no idea about the connection with the Beatles and their White Album. Perhaps the most glowing recommendation I can give is that with the knowledge I’ve gained, I now want to watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood again, a film I detested the first time I saw it.


Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch, not Helter Skelter, but other great movies from this series...

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