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Traumafession:: Unk on Helter Skelter (1976)

August 28th, 2019 by unkle lancifer · 10 Comments

It’s such a beautiful day outside, so I think I’ll stay in and watch HELTER SKELTER. Lunatic Charles Manson seems to be popping up everywhere lately thanks at least partly to Damon Herriman’s recent duo performances of the cult leader in the Netflix series MINDHUNTER (great show) and Quentin Tarantino’s latest flick ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (Maybe I’ll borrow it from the library someday?) Herriman has some big old giant shoes to fill because the incredible STEVE RAILSBACK truly brought an intense A-game to his unnerving take in the 1976 two-night event television miniseries. You’d think that what scared the hell out of me when I watched it as a kid would’ve involved one of the two savage home break-in multiple murders (the first so depraved it involves an eight-month pregnant Sharon Tate) but nah, crazily enough what gets under my skin takes place in a courtroom (which is especially nuts when you know that nothing puts me to sleep faster than a courtroom scene). The bit works as a kind of cliffhanger for the first night’s segment. Manson wildly enters the courtroom and takes a seat as GEORGE DiCENZO as prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (who authored the book) notices that his watch has inexplicably stopped and remarks, “It’s never done this before”. He then looks up to see Charles Manson smiling at him, the implication being that somehow the madman has OMEN-like telekinetic powers and is responsible. RAILSBACK’s smiling, whacked-out expression is the true epitome of insanity. It’s beyond uncanny and far scarier than any special effect could possibly offer. It absolutely terrified me as a kid because I knew that what I was watching was a TRUE STORY and it seemed that what was being suggested was that Manson indeed had supernatural powers and that idea chilled me to the bone.

I have no idea why my parents would think that HELTER SKELTER was an appropriate thing for me to watch.  Truth is though; I was already well aware of the appalling crime thanks to a visit to my cousin’s house where I had stumbled across the book and the gruesome photos inside. Still, I suppose nothing could prepare me for STEVE RAILSBACK’s hyper-convincing delirium and the way he almost seemed to look through the TV screen at me. In typical beat you over the head seventies-style subtly, the monstrous visage freeze frames for even more of an unsettling impact that nearly branded itself inside my head. Watching the movie again as an adult it becomes clear how much the musical score guided by mounting hysteria. It’s something I’m sure I wouldn’t even notice at the time but looking back I recognize so many of the era’s prerequisite musical jabs, nudges and cues. Having been raised on TV, it’s possible I’ve been trained to panic at these blunt obvious sounds like a nervous dog. Composer BILLY GOLDENBERG has a long list of television credits including DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973) and CIRCLE OF FEAR which explains a lot.

Note: When I finally did venture outside I stopped by my favorite thrift shop and randomly procured an album by The Brady Bunch entitled “Meet The Brady Bunch”. The record is mostly an assortment of covers of then (1972) popular mellow seventies songs; one of them being Don McLean’s “American Pie”. For some reason known only to them, the Brady kids jump ahead with the lyrics and start their version with “Helter Skelter in the summer swelter…” Yes, the Brady kids actually sing about the Manson murders (Somehow this is even more inappropriate than their cover of Bread’s “Baby I’m-a Want You”)! It’s crazy, right? It just goes to show you how ubiquitous and inescapable the Manson murders were (and apparently still are). Also, I would be remiss if I did not also point out that HELTER SKELTER sports an impressive performance by the late great horror icon MARILYN BURNS ( THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE ) as key witness Linda Kasabian. How she and RAILSBACK eluded Emmy awards is a mystery for the ages.

Tags: Traumafessions

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 micksterNo Gravatar // Aug 28, 2019 at 8:23 pm

    I’ve been obsessed with Helter Skelter since I discovered the true crime novel summer before my 10th grade year. My best friend’s mother had the book, and I had never heard of it. Needless to say, I was traumatized. I didn’t see the TV movie until a couple of years later. It was at the awesome video store in my hometown. Railsback IS Manson in this movie. The scene you described here is just as intense in the book! BTW, you NEED to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood! I loved it SO much!

  • 2 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 28, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    I swear we lived parallel lives in our youth! Railsback really is incredible in this. He’s somehow even scarier than the real Manson. I also like him in the ED GEIN movie with Carrie Snodgress. There was another version of HELTER SKELTER in 2004 and I’m not sure if I ever saw it but I remember it at the video store. I’ll make sure to check out OAATIH if you recommend it!

  • 3 Chuckles72No Gravatar // Aug 29, 2019 at 9:21 am

    Cousins – how you learn about stuff that your parents want to keep from you. My parents did not want me to see Phantasm or The Warriors, but they might as well because my cousin gave me the horrifying blow-by-blow for each film (with flourishes). I assumed that The Warriors was a full-on horror film from his description.

    To follow up on the mickster, you should also take the time to watch Mindhunter if you have not. My only complaint about it is that it needs more Anna Torv.

  • 4 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 29, 2019 at 10:22 am


    I agree. LOVE Mindhunter but didn’t dig how they didn’t touch base with Anna Torv’s Wendy at the end of season 2!!! They just left me hanging. I was hoping they’d show her buying a cat (i loved the homeless cat storyline in season 1- though it was heartbreaking). One thing I learned from MINDHUNTER- Manson was only 5’2″!

    Also another thing that creeped me out about HELTER SKELTER (1976) that I forgot to mention= the ending where they show Manson’s disciples with their heads shaved and they are looking at the camera making threats and again; it’s like they are looking through the TV at me.., yikes.

  • 5 Ghastly1No Gravatar // Aug 29, 2019 at 11:19 am

    I’m a Mansonite and thus one of the few who will speak up for Charlie. Helter Skelter is not a “true crime” story, it is just a story; the propaganda being pushed by the district attorney, an agent of the system.

    Keep in mind we are constantly told that the system is crooked and wrongfully convicts people and thus is not to be trusted and needs to be changed but when it comes to Charles Manson, it’s unflagging honest and righteous.

    Also keep in mind, movies and television shows are not real, they do not tell the truth, they are made to entertain as well as propagandize. If you believe them, that does not speak well of you.

    If you want to get the true story about Charles Manson and the so-called “Manson Family murders” (Charlie never killed anyone btw and isn’t a serial/mass murderer) read “The Manson File: Myth and Reality of an Outlaw Shaman” by Nikolas Schreck. It is meticulously researched and you will learn things conveniently left out of the “Helter Skelter” narrative and other derivative sensationalist drivel.

    Watch Charles Manson interviews and actually listen to what he says, don’t be put off by his theatrics (which Manson intentionally employed). A good place to start is “Charles Manson Superstar” also by Nikolas Schreck.

    We really are living in an artificial reality created and presented to us by our overseers; some seem to not be aware of their bondage, swallowing whole what they are fed and consider themselves “informed”.

  • 6 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 29, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    That’s a very interesting comment! It’s true that Manson never actually killed anyone. I can’t pretend to be an authority on the subject. My point was to share the fact that the miniseries and Railsbak’s performance really scared the hell out of me as a kid- as I’m sure it was created to. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint (and reading suggestions). There’s always so much more to learn out there!

  • 7 Ghastly1No Gravatar // Aug 29, 2019 at 1:35 pm

    Yeah, Helter Skelter features decent acting for what it is trying to achieve and it achieves its end. But it’s just acting, it’s fake, it’s not real. There are outright lies, exaggerations, lines are intoned in such a way so as to make them sound “sinister” and there are musical cues to ensure certain emotional responses and inferences reached. This is the power and the danger of movies; if this were just some dumb work of make believe it could be passed over as merely harmless entertainment.

    The problem is that the story being told actually involved and affected real life people. The fictional mythical presentation of Charles Manson as some insane murderous cult leader with quasi-mystical abilities has no doubt won out over the truth, which is both tragic and unfortunate for those involved as well as we outside the immediate vicinity of the maelstrom.

    Charles Manson said we watch movies and tv shows and exist in this Hollywood fantasy world because we can’t handle reality and that what entertainment we consume is a reflection of what is inside of us; I think that is something we should always keep in mind.

  • 8 Madamoiselle MacabreNo Gravatar // Aug 30, 2019 at 11:27 am

    Re-watching SCISSORS the other day, I realized I would actually like a romantic comedy if it featured Steve Railsback as the love interest. He’s definitely a fave! Railsback really steals the show as Manson, but I’d also love to give a shout out to Nancy Wolfe as Susan Atkins. She doesn’t get as much ink, but it’s a really chilling, understated performance (look at that little smile when her description of the murders causes a nauseous grand juror to rush out of the room).

    The Manson Family is really making a comeback lately (at least in movies). I’d also recommend CHARLIE SAYS directed by Mary Harron, told mostly from the girls’ point of view.

  • 9 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 30, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    You’re right Nancy Wolfe deserves more recognition. She’s really great in HS. I can’t tell you how much I love SCISSORS- that movie just blows me away. The visuals are just incredible and you get TWO Railsback performances for the price of one. I wrote a love letter to that movie a bunch of years back… yikes…almost ten years ago in fact…

  • 10 coopcoopNo Gravatar // Jan 8, 2020 at 3:12 pm

    My Mother in Law told me should could not put the book down nor could she sleep that night because they lived so close to where it all happened.

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