Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Helter Skelter: Two Movies

Helter Skelter (1976) ***
Directed by:
Tom Gries
Written By: J.P. Miller based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.
Starring: George DiCenzo (Vincent Bugliosi), Steve Railsback (Charles Manson), Nancy Wolfe (Susan Atkins), Marilyn Burns (Linda Kasabian), Christina Hart (Patricia Krenwinkel), Cathey Paine (Leslie Van Houten), Alan Oppenheimer (Aaron Stovitz), Rudy Ramos (Danny DeCarlo), Bill Durkin (Tex Watson), Howard Caine (Everett Scoville), Jason Ronard (Paul Watkins), Skip Homeier (Judge Older).

Helter Skelter (2004) *** ½
Directed by:
John Gray
Written By: John Gray based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.
Starring: Jeremy Davies (Charles Manson), Clea DuVall (Linda Kasabian), Marguerite Moreau (Susan 'Sadie' Atkins), Eric Dane (Charles "Tex" Watson), Allison Smith (Patricia 'Katie' Krenwinkle), Bruno Kirby (Vincent Bugliosi), Catherine Wadkins (Leslie Van Houten), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme), Marek Probosz (Roman Polanski).

Despite my love of true crime books, up until a few weeks ago I had never read what is apparently the bestselling book of all time in the genre – Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry Helter Skelter, which was about Bugliosi who was the lead prosecutor in the Charles Manson case. I’m not sure why I had never read the book – perhaps the sheer length of the book was intimidating, or perhaps I didn’t think I’d be very interested in a book about a drug fueled cult who killed people. But when I did actually pick the book up a few weeks ago, I was enthralled by it. It truly is one of the best true crime book in history, and offered remarkable insight not only into the trial of Charles Manson, but the inner workings of his sick mind. When I was finished, I thought I’d check out the two TV movies based on the book – the first in 1976 and the second in 2004. While I thought that both films were good, they were also both incomplete, but surprisingly, to me at least, I found the more recent of the two to be the better movie – mainly because in Jeremy Davies performance as Manson you have one of the best portrayals of pure evil I have ever seen on film.

The 1976 version, directed by Tom Gries, sticks pretty much to the outline of the book – opening with the murders, moving on through the investigation, the arrest and how Bugliosi built the case against Manson and his co-defendants – Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and the absent Charles “Tex” Watson (who would be tried separately). It doesn’t present the murders in any detail until Linda Kasabian takes the stand and describes them. Gries favors a almost Dragnet style “Just the Facts ma’am” approach to the film. At times though, I found that Gries was trying to cram too much into a single movie – especially since at times, he seemed to be rushing through things. For example, in the book Bugliosi spends a lot of time complaining about Manson’s lawyer, Everett Scoville, who objected to nearly everything and slowed the whole trial down considerably, driving everyone crazy. This eventually leads to one of the other defendant’s lawyers apologizing to Bugliosi as he admits that it was his idea to hire him in the first place. In the book, this is well played out, in the movie it rushes by so quickly that it barely registers – better to leave it out entirely, if you’re not going to deal with it full (especially since they rushed through the part where Manson held up the paper with the headline about how Nixon declared Manson guilty even before the trial was over). Gries in a rush to get everything in, does a disservice to what he leaves there, by not fully exploring it.

The bigger problem to me though in the original film is the performance by Steve Railsback as Manson. Railsback plays Manson as almost completely bonkers – smiling, laughing, singing and looking goofy the whole time staring off into space (seriously, I don’t think I ever once saw him blink in the course of the movie). It’s hard to believe this Manson as the same man who was able to brainwash his followers into committing murder for him. There is one great moment that Railsback has in the film – when he takes the stand and delivers Manson’s infamous speech about how he didn’t make these kids killers – society did. Society threw them out with the trash, where Manson was just there to pick them up when they needed it. It is a haunting moment, and Railsback is up to the task. Another haunting moment is his final scene, with Manson in jail singing which sticks in my mind days later. No, I don’t think Railsback did a great job in playing the Manson we have come to know through Bugliosi’s book, and his infamous interviews with Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder and Geraldo Riveria – but then again, Railsback didn’t have the luxury of seeing those interviews before he delivered his performance (they were all done in the 1980s). I’m not saying that Railsback is bad in the movie – he certainly gives a memorable performance – just that it doesn’t quite relate to what we know about Manson.

However, despite the flaws in the film, there is a lot more than works as a whole than that doesn’t work. Nancy Wolfe gives a chilling performance as Susan Atkins, who matter of factly describes the crimes to the grand jury, all the while laughing and smirking and yawning. And George DiCenzo is excellent as Bugliosi (although I could have done without him addressing the camera directly at the beginning and end of the movie) as he shows Bugliosi’s commitment to bringing Manson and his followers to justice. Marilyn Burns is quite good as Linda Kasabian, the woman who was along on both nights of murder who testified against Manson at trial. The film also does an excellent job of showing the mounting evidence against Manson, and how the case was built piece by piece – making us accept the seemingly bizarre motive of Helter Skelter itself – that a war was coming between the blacks and whites, and the blacks would win, but once they did, they wouldn’t know what to do, so they’d turn to Manson and his family, the only white people left, and turn control over to them. Manson was just “showing blackie how it’s done”. Watching the film, I liked how it provided a good overview of the case, despite by disappointment that it wasn’t more detailed.

In 2004, John Gray wrote and directed another made for TV movie based on the book, but he took a distinctly different approach to the material – the trail is not dramatized at all in the film, but rather the film concentrates on life in the family itself, the murders and the arrest, and touches on how Bugliosi (this time played by Bruno Kirby) put the pieces of the puzzle together. But while Bugliosi was the main character in the previous film, he takes backseat in this movie – he doesn’t even show up until the last third of the movie. Until then, it is Manson’s show – and the performance by Jeremy Davies as Manson is one of the best in recent memory.

Unlike Railsback, Davies does not play Manson as outwardly insane and crazy. While I had trouble buying Railsback as the master manipulator Manson, I had no problem at all believing Davies. He is much quieter than Railsback was, inviting you in closer to hear what he says. In his hands, Manson is not an insane man, but a more evil one. You believe that this man could convince people to kill for him. There is something about Davies eyes that invite you in, and even though you see the evil in them, it never goes over the top. He is charming in a offbeat kind of way, able to control his followers with little more than a look and better grasps the circular logic than Manson used to get what he wanted. It is a performance that towers over the movie, and makes it much more disturbing than the original film. When he draws out his sword, in the films first scene, to slice Gary Hinnman’s ear off, you know you are entering Charlie’s world – and it isn’t a pretty place.

But Davies doesn’t deliver the films only great performance. Clea Duvall has almost as much screen time as he does as Linda Kasabian, and the film is just as much about her journey as it is about Manson’s. She arrives in the family a lost young woman – one child in hand, another on the way, estranged from her husband and her family and looking for answers. The Family seemingly provides a place for her to go and be herself. Charlie is interesting – he seems like a nice guy musician, but gradually she starts to see the darker side of the family, but by then she is in too deep to get herself out. She goes along on the nights of the murder because she doesn’t know how to say no.

Just like in the original film, the key supporting player in the movie is Susan Atkins – here played wonderfully by Marguerite Moreau. She seems to have studied Nancy Wolfe’s work in the original film, and captures that same look of bewilderment and cold hearted malice in her laughing, giggling performance as Atkins, who felt no remorse over what she did. It is a chilling performance.

This film, unlike the other one, really tries to get inside the shared insanity of the Family itself – showing its progression into an unfeeling, unthinking killing force, and watching how each character changes throughout the film. The final scene of the film is the most haunting, as Bugliosi goes to visit Manson in jail before the trail. In this version, this is when Manson delivers his speech about how society cast out his Family members and he merely dusted them off and gave them a sense of belonging and love. While this was the highlight of the previous film, and Railsback’s performance, Davies outdoes himself here – creating one of the most memorable and chilling moments that I can remember seeing in a film.

The 2004 version is to me anyway, the better of the two films – it is better made, better acted and has what is most likely the best performance any actor will ever give as Manson. And yet, something is holding it back from being a great film. Like the earlier film, it feels that there is something missing from it – and I think I know what it is in both cases.

Other than Atkins, the rest of the killers in the Manson family remain little more than ciphers in both films. Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel are barely present in both films, and there is no attempt to really get to understand either one of them. They remain the laughing, unfeeling monsters in both films – but no attempt is made to explain them, or what led them to Manson in the first place. At least Gray tries with Krenwinkel in the 2004 version, giving us a haunting scene where Krenwinkel’s father visits her in jail and asks her what he did wrong to make her turn out this way. Krenwinkel seems to be on the verge of breaking, but it is at that moment that Atkins and Van Houten skip past the interview room singing, and Krenwinkel leaves her heartbroken father to join them.

As for Van Houten, apparently John Waters had something to do with her role in the new version being almost completely written out of the film. He has become friends with Van Houten during her years in jail, and believes she should be paroled. When he found out a new version of the book was being made, he called Gray and asked him to be mindful of what his film would do to the public perception of Van Houten. The result is a portrait of Van Houten that even her biggest supporters would deem kind – she isn’t given any time to actually talk in the film, and during the LiBianca killings, the only ones Van Houten was involved, she is portrayed as being hesitant and only stabbing Rosemary LiBianca after she was dead, and only at the urging at Watson and Krenwinkel who pretty much force her to stab her.

The bigger problem in both of the films is that Watson remains a completely under considered character. I can barely recall him appearing in the 1976 version (because that focused on the trail of Manson, and Watson was still in Texas awaiting extradition at the time), and in the newer version, although he is given more screen time (and played by Eric Dane, who would go onto play McSteamy on Gray’s Anatomy), but again it remains a mystery as to how he was manipulated into killing for Manson. In both films, that is what is really missing – how precisely Manson manipulated his followers into killing for him, and what went through their minds while they were killing. Perhaps these are unanswerable questions – Bugliosi’s book only touches on it, and neither Atkins or Watson’s books (which are more about their conversion to Christianity than Manson) offered believable explanations, and Van Houten doesn’t talk about it much, and from what I can tell, Krenwinkel doesn’t talk about it at all. But in both films, it feels like this absence makes the films incomplete.

Another glaring omission from both movies (the 1976 version more than the 2004 version, since it looked at the trial in more detail), is that neither ever puts the Manson version of events on screen. After the quartet was found guilty, during the sentencing stage of the trial Atkins, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and a host of other Family members went on the stand and claimed that it was the girls, including Kasabian, who came up with the idea for the Tate and LiBianca killings saying that they wanted to do it to get Bobby Beausouliel (who had been convicted of killing Gary Hinnman) out of jail by making it look like the real killer was still on the loose. No one believes this story, and most of the witnesses have since recanted and admitted they had it all up, but it remains relevant, because as far as I know, this is the version of events Manson still claims is the truth. Why they, or he, didn’t testify during the guilt phase of the trial about this remains a mystery – as does Manson’s claim that he was never allowed to mount a defense. His lawyer was allowed – he just didn’t do it, and if Manson wanted to take the stand to do more than just make a statement without the jury present, then no one – not even his own lawyer, could have stopped him.

Perhaps it can all be explained by something as simple as time constraints. The 1976 version originally aired over two nights, and has a running time of 3 hours. The director’s cut of the 2004 version, which is slightly longer than the TV version, is already at 2 hours and 15 minutes – and that doesn’t even include any of the trail. I think in order to do the book properly, without skimping on anything, it needs to be a proper, epic miniseries running closer to 8-10 hours, and not three. Given the lackluster response to the 2004 version (for reasons that I do not understand), I doubt that this will ever happen. And because of that, a single definitive version of Helter Skelter may never be seen.

In the absence of one complete version, we have to look to the two films we do have – which in a strange way complement each other. The 2004 version gives an excellent glimpse into the Manson family, and everything that lead up to the murders, right up until the start of the trial. The 1976 version gives an excellent view of how the case against Manson was built, and how the trail played out. Yes, there is some overlap in the movies, but strangely, given that they were adapted from the same book, there are many more differences – not in fact or interpretation, but one what the directors choose to focus on.

What remains obvious, through watching these two films and reading the book, is that Manson still has the power to fascinate, and terrify people even though he has been in jail for more than 40 years now. It’s not just me who is still drawn to the case – go online and you can buy all sorts of posters and artwork of Manson, and even an action figure! There are still movies being made about him, TV specials about him and websites devoted to him. Charles Manson has had a greater impact on society than any American criminal of the 20th Century. Even if neither of these movies gives a complete picture of his life and crimes, for now anyway, they will have to suffice.

4 comments:

  1. Part 1

    I enjoyed reading your comments, and I'm glad to see that someone else besides me thinks that the 2004 film is better than the 1976 version. I personally think this is for two reasons. First, in 1976, Manson was still viewed by mainstream society as the evil creep with superhuman -- perhaps even supernatural -- powers who could seduce your daughters and sons away and lead them into a life of horrible crime and violence. "They could have been the girls next door" was an oft-heard sentiment then. The latter film doesn't do character studies on the followers' backgrounds, but if I recall correctly, does tangentially bring in the fact that most of Manson's followers came from broken homes and troubled childhoods. The result is that in the 1976 film, you get Manson-as-Satan, glowing eyes and all; in 2004, you get Manson-as-evil-human. Railsback (who has done many other fine performances) portrayed Manson as a raving lunatic, and I think he probably intentionally set out to portray him that way. But in the process, the portrayal fails -- the real Manson is far more coherent, rational, etc. than that. Railsback's Manson came off as exceptionally bizarre, true; he also came off like Gomer Pyle on acid.

    But I think a more important reason for the difference between the two films is that Davies simply had a more challenging role. The 2004 film explores what happened before and leading up through the murders, and must in the process touch on Manson's associations with Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher, etc. Now, imagine if Davies had done a Railsback style portrayal of Manson -- the natual question the audience would have immediately asked would have been, "why the hell are basically normal and decent people like Wilson and Melcher having anything at all to do with this guy?" Manson did have some success ingratiating himself into the entertainment/music/hippie world of late 1960s southern California, and in order for the movie to make that believable, Davies had to project a far more accurate version of Manson himself.

    You mentioned some memorable moments in the 2004 film. One that stands out to me is the "do I look like a 'Chuck'" scene. That's Manson unmasked, at his sinister worst. OTOH, the performance did occasionally fail -- in particular, his portrayal of Manson explaining to his followers why they had to burn the bulldozer ("they send their machines," etc.) didn't work for me. But on the whole, the only real problem I have with Davies performace is his style of speech -- breathy, hypersyncopated, etc. It's instantly recognizable as a caricature of Manson, but the real Charles Manson simply doesn't talk like that.

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  2. Part 2

    Where I think both movies and the book ultimately fail is the "Helter Skelter" explanation itself. Bugliosi knew that whatever the evidence implicating the girls was, convicting Manson himself would be very difficult at best (indeed, at the time of Manson's arrest, the overwhelming opinion of the US legal community was that he was either innocent of the crimes or that he had created a situation which made it impossible to convict him). In order to get a conviction, Bugliosi could not of course fudge the facts of the case, but he was free to sell possible explanations to the jury. Some of the Manson Family did believe the murders were being done for Helter Skelter; others believed they were doing them to try to get Bobby Beausoliel off the hook. Still others, like Sandra Good and Squeaky Fromme (yes, *that* Squeaky Fromme), actually thought it was some sort of weird environmental protest! (Good was not portrayed in the 2004 version. In the 1976 version both girls are portrayed but their names have been changed; they're the pair who agree to talk to Bugliosi if he'll buy them some candy). You're entirely correct when you say that nobody believes that the copycat murder motive was the girls' idea; however, I do believe that the some of the girls had been sold this idea **by Manson**. One thing to bear in mind is that some of the Manson crimes are still unprosecuted -- it's pretty much an open secret, for example, that "Gypsy" (Catherine Share) was an accessory after the fact to the murder of Shorty Shea (a working cowboy at Spahn Ranch). I'm sure people like her recognize the value of playing the game to keep themselves clear, and are not going to say anything other than the "correct" version of events -- Manson was evil, and the rest were victims. Just MHO, of course.

    Problem for Bugliosi was that he know about an earlier "murder" by Manson himself, that of Bernard Crowe. (I put murder in quotes because Manson shot Crowe and believed he had killed him; Crowe in fact survived the shooting. Manson didn't find this out until well into the Tate/LaBianca trial, however.) That crime puts many of the subsequent events in a different light and leads to far less bizarre explanations for Manson's behavior. But by the time Bugliosi became aware of this, he was already too far along in the trial and was committed to the Helter Skelter theory ... and the rest is history.

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  3. Part 3 of 3

    Any explanation must take into account that the typical Manson follower spent most of his or her time stoned, and so straightforward and rational explanations just don't quite fit. But I think the broad outlines go something like this. Tex Watson "burned" Crowe in a drug deal, then took off leaving Manson holding the bag. Manson met with Crowe to confront him and/or try to work things out, things got out of hand, and Manson shot Crowe in front of several witnesses. Manson, believing he was now a murderer, and that Crowe's Black Panther friends would seek revenge (Crowe was not a Black Panther but had lied to both Watson and Manson, claiming to be one), *and* recognizing that many at Spahn Ranch knew that Manson had gone to meet with Crowe on the night of the "murder" and could implicate him, concocted a plan which had two purposes -- (1) keep the Panthers and the police too busy with each other to pay much attention to him, by making it look as though the Panthers were committing a string of murders; and (2) "dirty the hands" of as many of his followers as possible and thus keep them from implicating him. Along the way he improvised as best as he could, occasionally catching a bonus along the way (Manson knew Melcher no longer lived at Cielo Drive, and the reason he sent his troops there was simply that they knew the layout of the house, but I suspect he enjoyed scaring the crap out of Melcher in the process), and schemed to keep his own hands clean. Personally I think that if he had ordered Atkins, Krenwinkle, and Van Houten to sit demurely in the courtroom, instead of instructing them to act like three screaming banshees (in the process demonstrating Manson's control of them far better than any testimony ever could), he might have pulled it off.

    Anyway, as you can tell, I've spent some time reading and thinking about this case and enjoy talking about it ... and this has all put me in the mood to watch the 2004 version again. Best regards -- Danny.

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  4. Part 3 of 3

    Any explanation must take into account that the typical Manson follower spent most of his or her time stoned, and so straightforward and rational explanations just don't quite fit. But I think the broad outlines go something like this. Tex Watson "burned" Crowe in a drug deal, then took off leaving Manson holding the bag. Manson met with Crowe to confront him and/or try to work things out, things got out of hand, and Manson shot Crowe in front of several witnesses. Manson, believing he was now a murderer, and that Crowe's Black Panther friends would seek revenge (Crowe was not a Black Panther but had lied to both Watson and Manson, claiming to be one), *and* recognizing that many at Spahn Ranch knew that Manson had gone to meet with Crowe on the night of the "murder" and could implicate him, concocted a plan which had two purposes -- (1) keep the Panthers and the police too busy with each other to pay much attention to him, by making it look as though the Panthers were committing a string of murders; and (2) "dirty the hands" of as many of his followers as possible and thus keep them from implicating him. Along the way he improvised as best as he could, occasionally catching a bonus along the way (Manson knew Melcher no longer lived at Cielo Drive, and the reason he sent his troops there was simply that they knew the layout of the house, but I suspect he enjoyed scaring the crap out of Melcher in the process), and schemed to keep his own hands clean. Personally I think that if he had ordered Atkins, Krenwinkle, and Van Houten to sit demurely in the courtroom, instead of instructing them to act like three screaming banshees (in the process demonstrating Manson's control of them far better than any testimony ever could), he might have pulled it off.

    Anyway, as you can tell, I've spent some time reading and thinking about this case and enjoy talking about it ... and this has all put me in the mood to watch the 2004 version again. Best regards -- Danny.

    ReplyDelete