Having long nurtured a fascination with the Manson Family murder spree, when I heard CBS was airing a new film version of 'Helter Skelter,' co-produced by Vincent Bugliosi and starring the gifted Jeremy Davies as Manson, I couldn't resist tuning in. Boy, was I disappointed.
Davies is a superb actor, but, despite his previously demonstrated ability to play twisted, mentally unstable characters ('Solaris,' 'Saving Private Ryan', 'Ravenous'), his Manson is sort of silly and not particularly persuasive. The casting in general is fairly abysmal--especially Bruno Kirby as Bugliosi, who was at least 15 years younger than Kirby when he tried the case and at least 30 pounds lighter--though there are some small exceptions (Clea Duvall is persuasively haunting as Linda Kasabian, the key witness against the defense). In general, the whole project just seems cheap and crass: the clothes, makeup, and especially the hair on the Manson family look perversely fake and costume-ish, the story offers absolutely no new insights or perspectives on the case, and, worst of all, the direction perpetuates the fetishization of Manson that has contributed to his continued popularity among confused young people who see him as something more than a screwed-up con artist who went nuts because he couldn't get anybody to help him make a record.
Why would Bugliosi sign on for this project, given that he has continued to lament Manson's continuing appeal and expressed remorse for his part in helping to enlarge Manson's myth? He couldn't possibly need the money--'Helter Skelter' is the best-selling true crime book of all time, and all of Bugliosi's subsequent literary efforts have also sold well. Initially I had thought that the film would shed light on how Manson became who he was--his history of incarceration and institutionalization, his horrific childhood, the influence of Scientology and the 'Church of the Process' on his new-agey philosophy, which he later wielded to woo his acolytes into worshiping him to the point that they lost their independent will and would be willing to murder on his order--but instead, we get a retread of facts that will be familiar to anyone who has paid the slightest attention to this case in the past.
There was an opportunity here to add to the story, and to at least make a stab at unpacking the various forces which led up to Manson's bizarre, apocalyptic vision. Perhaps the most overlooked detail of Manson's history is that he is a product of the failures of society, particularly in relation to our child welfare and penal systems. The son of a 'bad girl' who abandoned him to the state, Manson suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse at the hands of older inmates before he reached his teens. By the time he showed up in the Haight in '67, he'd spent over half of his life in prison, and had even begged not to be released, acknowledging himself that he'd been 'institutionalized'--that he'd spent so much of his life in prison culture that he was neither willing nor able to make the transition back into society. Worst of all, Manson would have been the first person to tell anyone that he was far from rehabilitated when he was let loose on the world for the last time.
There's no forgiving Charles Manson for his crimes, nor is there really any way of knowing if his hold over his followers was due to anything more than a shrewd con-man's instincts for exploiting vulnerable marks. But it could be argued that, had he been treated more humanely as a child, he might not have evolved into the man he became.
But this film overlooks the possibility of adding something constructive to this sensational story and chooses instead to roll around in the same old dirt. It's awfully hypocritical of Bugliosi to facilitate this garbage, especially given that the product suggests that his only motives were to make a quick buck and maybe sell a few more books. It's also disrespectful to the families of the victims and the other, secondary victims of Manson--Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkle--who were seduced into becoming murderers and, thanks to the continuing public fascination with Manson, will likely never see the outside of a prison, while far more sinister and dangerous killers are regularly paroled after serving half as much time as Manson's unlucky followers.