CBS unveils a shameless, sadistic new Manson family portrait

America has a ghastly history of multiple murderers — Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, to name just a few. However, none conjures images of unbridled savagery as much as Charles Manson. Worshiped by a bizarre cult of disaffected youths who grotesquely slaughtered strangers at his command, Manson stands alone in the rogues’ gallery of ghoulish public fascination.

“Helter Skelter,” a 1976 dramatization of the 1969 Manson family killing spree, remains the highest rated two-part miniseries in TV history. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s nonfiction book, the basis for that movie and a remake on Sunday (airing at 7 p.m. on KUTV Channel 2), is one of the best-selling true-crime dramas ever. Thirty-five years after the barbarism, the name Manson is still considered magnetic enough to merit sweeps-period scheduling.

The new “Helter Skelter” is barely half the movie the original was. It’s playing over three hours in one night, which is a more substantial cutback than it might appear. In the ’70s, a four-hour production had almost three and a half hours of content. Today’s gluttonous commercial load reduces three-hour movies to barely more than two hours of actual story.

The follow-up also essentially covers only half the story, the part that wasn’t as thoroughly explored in 1976. The original primarily chronicled how Bugliosi brought the Manson family to justice. The remake concentrates on how Manson influenced his disciples to commit the homicidal rampage that earned them international infamy.

The shift in emphasis is easily explained. Societal mores in 1976 would not have abided the gruesome re-creations of the killings, which are the centerpiece of the remake.

“We have an opportunity to portray a lot of the stuff more graphically and intensely now than they would have then,” co-executive producer Mark Wolper said. He takes full advantage. “Helter Skelter” is not for the squeamish or young impressionable minds. Aside from titillation junkies and the morbidly curious, there is no good reason for anyone to subject themselves to this shameless exploitation of sadistic violence.

Jeremy Davies is eerily convincing as Manson, so much so that Bugliosi, who has an executive producer’s credit, was taken aback when he first saw him on the set. He says he muttered to himself, “What’s this guy doing out of prison?”

Manson is introduced as a frustrated rock musician, hanging around with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson even manages to get a tune he wrote on one of the group’s albums. But he’s not the talent he fancies himself, and flies into a rage when Wilson kisses him off.

The story gets its title from a Beatles tune, which Manson felt was sending him a message. His interpretation: “Helter Skelter” would be a war between the races, which his followers would help ignite with their murders. They’d then sit back, waiting to pick up the pieces and take command of society.

The sect creates a commune at an old western movie set, the Spahn Ranch outside Los Angeles. Love is free but thinking isn’t. Manson’s followers must accept as gospel his psychobabble rants, such as “Death is an illusion” and “No sense makes sense.”

In the credo of Manson, parents are bad for kids. One of his many outlandish rituals and rules includes segregating children from their parents, which causes some private doubts for Linda Kasabian, a drifter with a 2-year-old daughter from a failed marriage. Nonetheless, she quickly enlists in the cult after an introduction by one of Manson’s followers.

Their names came to symbolize the worst of what young people could become: Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, Tex Watson, Squeaky Fromme (who would later attempt to assassinate President Ford), Leslie Van Houten and Sadie Atkins.

Bugliosi remains baffled about how Manson could exert the influence he did over these seemingly normal young adults.

“Tex Watson was a track champion in Texas. He played basketball and football. He got all A’s,” Bugliosi said. “Leslie Van Houten was a homecoming princess. Patricia Krenwinkel wanted to become a nun. How did he get these people to go into strangers’ homes, dressed in black in the middle of the night, and kill these people? It’s mind-boggling.”

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