Last year’s release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders that inspired its story, revealed something that I never thought I’d see: a lot of people (mostly younger people) have no idea who Charles Manson is or what he did.
Those of us 35 and older know that Manson was a hippie who attracted a legion of young, mostly female runaways to his commune and eventually ordered them to kill for him, and subsequently became the most famous criminal in generations. When I was a kid, Manson’s story was still recent enough to be common knowledge, and his name was shorthand for “crazy.”
But as a much more peaceful hippie once sang, all things must pass away -- even the notoriety of America’s most famous mass murderer. Convenient, then, that EPIX premieres the deepest of dives on the topic this Sunday: a six-part documentary called Helter Skelter: An American Myth.
This documentary is of particular interest to me, born only two years after Manson and three of his accomplices were convicted. I read Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s comprehensive account of his investigation and prosecution of the case, when I was 12 or 13 (I was a weird kid) and a couple of times since, and have always found the case, with its peculiar blend of ‘60s idealism, Hollywood glamour, and totally baffling murder mystery completely fascinating.
So it was something of a surprise what a fresh spin director Lesley Chilcott puts on the material. Bugliosi’s book is not only the definitive take on the case, but Bugliosi himself seemingly never missed a chance to appear in documentaries about the case over the next 40+ years, and as a result has always been the dominant voice. Despite his best efforts to appear in this one, Bugliosi’s 2015 death proved too great an obstacle, and this may be the first exhaustive piece on the case not to feature any interviews with him.
But that turns out to be an asset, because Bugliosi’s entire explanation of Manson’s motive rests on the far-out notion that he was aiming to start a race war that would ultimately put him and his so-called “Family” in control of the entire world. That’s a fascinating and at least somewhat plausible explanation, as the film makes clear that Manson really did tell his people that a race war called “Helter Skelter” was imminent, but an alternate, less sensational theory -- that Manson committed and/or ordered this increasingly gruesome series of murders in a spiraling effort to cover his tracks after shooting someone in a soured drug deal -- is also presented and it’s hard not to think of Occam’s Razor, which posits that the simplest explanation for any phenomenon is most likely to be true, leaving the viewer to decide which theory is the titular “American Myth.”
Bugliosi’s absence also makes room for the recollections of people who were even closer to the case than he was, foremost among them a few of Manson’s followers, all of whom bore extensive witness to day-to-day life in the Manson Family, if not any actual murders: Catherine Share, who went by “Gypsy” when she was with the Family and stayed committed until after the guilty verdict; and Dianne Lake, who joined the Family at 14 and stayed until the Family was arrested en masse, which led to the authorities finally connecting them to the murders four months after the fact; and Stephanie Schram, who met Manson and joined the Family shortly before things turned ugly, and, sensing Manson’s slide into madness, eventually escaped into the desert.
The other major voice to fill the void of Bugliosi’s absence is biographer Jeff Guinn, whose “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson” significantly fleshed out Bugliosi’s story, which was heavy on details of the events of August 8-9, 1969, but a little sketchier on what came before (unless it directly related to the murders). The first episode is an Overture of sorts, sketching the broad strokes of the murders before backing up to allow Lake to recount her arrival at Spahn Ranch, an abandoned movie set that Manson and his followers had annexed, and to talk about the personalities of the other girls -- including Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten, who would soon become famous in their own right -- and then moving on to discuss the weird intersection of seedy hippie free-love and drug culture with Hollywood and the music industry, and how Manson’s effort to leverage access to the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson into a recording career spiraled into something far more sinister.
Subsequent episodes detail Manson’s troubled childhood and early adulthood, in and out of reform school, juvenile detention, and eventually full-fledged prison, accruing bits and pieces of various philosophies -- including How to Win Friends and Influence People -- that would lead to building the Family after emerging from prison in 1967 to a totally different world than the one he’d left. From there, things go more or less chronologically, with details like long shots of Wilson’s gorgeous home (which he temporarily abandoned when it was overrun by the Family), recordings of Manson’s highly unimpressive music, and -- when the story gets around to the murders themselves -- including the voices of Atkins, Van Houten, and star witness Linda Kasabian in the appropriate places in the timeline.
If you were to feed this oddball recipe of biker gangs, Black Panthers, movie stars, rock and roll royalty, hippies, pimping, LSD, Dale Carnegie, Scientology, and of course The Beatles into a computer, Weird Science style, few would predict that computer would spit out the most gruesome and bizarrely motivated killings on record. But that’s what has kept this case fascinating for more than 50 years now, and it’s what makes this documentary -- which studiously avoids taking a definitive position on Manson’s notice -- the definitive take on the story.
Helter Skelter: An American Myth premieres July 29 on EPIX.