The Helter Skelter Murders/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Review of The Helter Skelter Murders
The infamous murders of Actress Sharon Tate, the wife of Director Roman Polanski, Hairstylist Jay Sebring, Heiress Abigale Folger, and Polanski's friend Wojciech Frykowski by those known to many as "The Manson Family" on Aug. 8-9, 1969, along with the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, will remain among the most talked about events of the Late 60's, as well as among the most exploited. For years, these events, which many point to as a dark final moment for an already angry era in American history, have provided Exploitation film producers with a wealth of material to create plenty of films, with the character of Charles Manson a natural to help spark a genre of it's own: A criminal unleashed out of prison in Early 1967 only to get wrapped up in the madness of the times while struggling to be a musician and leading a group of people, setting base at the famed Spahn Ranch (Which was still being used by film makers such as Al Adamson and Herschell Gordon Lewis at the time) as well as a place in Death Valley among other areas, with things winding up in a mixture of drugs, conspiracy, dabbling in the Occult, music, crime, dune buggy stealing, and by the Summer of 1969, Murder - Everything perfect for film makers of the era, and best represented by the classic final moments of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. When the trail was happening, the Exploitation Film makers were quick in even thinking about creating a films based on these murders, although a documentary that would unleash a rare glimpse of what remained of the Manson scene was being Produced by Lawrence Merrick (Who's own murder would provide a spark for Jim Van Bebber's The Manson Family), as the "Cult Family" story was a natural for those looking to create a "Warning" about Hippie Culture including the all-needed Drug Scare moment, already with many well-known references to spice up their stories, including the title of the classic Beatles' song, Helter Skelter, used as the term by The Family in their final and most infamous months for a prediction of a future of violent chaos and race riots which was also used as a "message" written in blood at on the refrigerator door at the LaBianca murder, and this was the first of a few that went directly to trying to re-create the history, with a film called Sweet Savior being made at the same time to be one of the most noted films, along with I Drink Your Blood, to center around a killer Hippie gang.
Wade Williams should be known to Exploitation Movie fans as he is the owner of many legendary Low Budget classics brought to the MST3K and DVD generations, and was the one who Produced this film, before all of the facts were known and finishing the production just shortly after the trail finished. When it comes down to it, this would have been a classic if only they held back a bit, by letting the facts come out instead of relying on some interviews and press publications (The filming was finished by Early 1971 with a release by the Summer of that year), but as it stands it's a good curio to those who are interested in the Manson Exploitation films. The facts are messed up, the courtroom scenes are sometime filler, and the focus is mainly on the Sharon Tate murder, with color footage used in the film on a "Waltz" scene featuring the credited gown in the part of her history, while the bit explaining "Helter Skelter" is very tame (I don't think two guys raiding an Auto shop is a good "Revolution" scene, sad to say, although the explosion at the end was a nice touch), although one gets the feeling that this was in the know that there were not many ready for a full solid dose of Manson. Still for all of it's negatives, and there are plenty, there are things to actually give it some mention of recommendation, especially with the style that adds in a "You are there" feeling that sometimes tries to freak out, but mainly is more "Fly on the (blood stained) wall" in most scenes, especially when it's known about the location filming and the re-enactments of the crimes that helped halt the release of the film for a while.
First, considering that the film is mainly in B&W, this may be the only film to fully capture real-time the dread that was lingering in the LA area at the time, thanks to some fine and occasionally grainy location shots and notably the lack of music during the second half when things focus on the murders, and although nobody looks like a member of The Family, and that the wooden acting mutes things up quite a bit, it still fits in some low-budget manner that makes it look more like a low-rent Action flick, almost looking like a Roughie in some parts. As a re-creation, it fails, especially when none of the characters involved in the story are named, but it had the potential to really be something fine in the wake of all of the other Manson-inspired flicks of the day, with the "Based on actual report" style "Square Up" crawl a nice touch, the slight occult touches are proof that there was at least some research made to the story, and an anti-drug message that fits in perfectly with the old-school Exploitation angles used while topping things off is the use of Manon's song "Mechanical Man" from the Lie album. The music, mainly by Ex-Music Machine member Sean Bonniwell, who's songs were featured in other Grindhouse films such as The Day of the Wolves, fits perfectly, using an instrumental mix of The Music Machine's "Dark White" as the theme. In other words, one can try to re-create the moment, but this one was at the time, bring the viewer almost to the point of being there in it's most effective scenes.
Debbie Duff is fine as "The Starlet" modeled after Tate, making some wish she would have been in other films, but sadly the one playing Manson does not quite cut it as well, but all in all everyone blends in with the surroundings well. The Director never made a feature film after this, possibly feeling a bit burned out from the experience as the film had difficulty in getting released, with difficulty in getting proper distribution after a big build-up which resulted in some premature announcements from a couple of smaller Sub-Distributors and a public burned out on Manson at the time resulting in the film not being noticed much at all once it finally was out and about, and if there were any playdates. Williams, however, had some luck when the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter was aired by bringing out the film one more time with a distributor, with tales being told of potential buyers aiming to destroy the negative maybe true, maybe Exploitation hype (It looks more like the later), but none the less reportable. Another chance to play the film came about in a predictable manner in 1979, a decade after the murders, but it was all for nothing after a good hype in the industry papers for a short while.
Despite the Low-budget Exploitation world this rests in, the style shows that there was some care brought into the production, and does prove that it was a bit too early to unleash a film like this, as also shown by the trouble Sweet Savior was having on it's first runs. Seen today, it may lack a certain edge people are more used to (Once again, I direct those to Van Bebber's film right away), but those with a curiosity for Manson Exploitation, this may be a time killer that will not provoke any heavy debate, but will provide some interest. With a good review in the book Bad Blood, a recommend look into films based on notorious criminals, it does have some good words by genre fans, making this a very interesting footnote in a very infamous chapter in crime.
Reviewed by Screen 13 - 6/23/09
The 1976 date is in relation to it's reissue after the broadcast of the legendary TV movie Helter Skelter, which brought the film more attention. Wade Williams also reissued it in 1979 in the 10'th Anniversary of the infamous murders. In the original hype for the film, there was a process called Auricvision announced, but the film was released without the gimmick.