After 50 years of films, books, TV shows and articles, we know just about all we will—or need to—about Charles Manson. Nonetheless, EPIX’s Helter Skelter: An American Myth makes up for its general familiarity through impressive comprehensiveness. Plunging into the minds of its infamous subject and the drugged-out acolytes who carried out the August 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders on his orders, director Lesley Chilcott’s six-part docuseries is a canny and compelling portrait of the madman and the myriad personal and social forces that created him—and led to the tragedy that shocked the country and cast a pall over the period’s peace-and-love counterculture.
Premiering Sunday, July 26, Helter Skelter marries copious archival material to new interviews with former Manson Family members Catherine Share, Dianne Lake and Stephanie Schram, as well as authors, reporters, acquaintances, prosecutors and jurors, to craft a grand sense of its enduringly fascinating tale. Also blessed with old and recent audio commentary from Manson and followers Bobby Beausoleil (who remains behind bars for the murder of Gary Hinman), Susan Atkins (one of the Tate killers), Brooks Poston, Barbara Hoyt and Harold True, Chilcott leaves no stone unturned in conveying the intertwined aspects of Manson’s life and crimes. Shrewdest of all, the director fixates on Manson without glorifying him; rather, the fiend appears in countless photos and silent film clips, and is heard singing some of his terrible songs, but is only rarely seen speaking on-camera—a deliberate strategic tack that casts him as the specter hovering over these proceedings, and yet also sidelines him from the celebrity spotlight he so desperately craved.
The desire for fame (primarily as a musician) was central to Manson’s mission, and Helter Skelter captures the numerous ways that music and movies are wrapped up in this saga, be it Manson’s unlikely friendship with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, his use of the Spahn Ranch (an Old West movie set) for his Family headquarters, or the fact that his ultimate victim, Sharon Tate, was a rising Hollywood actress married to acclaimed director Roman Polanski, who later pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.
Dreams of making it big were constantly on Manson’s mind, and as more than one speaker elucidates, his guitar tunes (along with LSD) were the key to luring damaged, lost souls into his orbit. According to him, his supposedly imminent stardom was the vehicle by which he’d disseminate his new-world-order gospel. When those plans fell apart (due to lack of talent and interest from producers Gregg Jakobson and Terry Melcher), Manson turned to wild tales of an impending race war to maintain his grip on his followers. To prove that such cataclysmic ideas were in the air, he claimed that the Beatles’ White Album—and specifically the song “Helter Skelter”—contained subliminal messages about the chaos to come.
Much of this has long been understood about Manson, but Helter Skelter benefits from an accompanying feel for the 1969 society in which Manson flourished, full of race riots, anger and disillusionment over the Vietnam War, and a hippie and guru movement (centralized in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury area) that allowed his craziness to find a captive audience. It also helped that Manson was a charismatic con man, having learned how to deceive people during an early lifetime spent largely in prison, where he took to Dale Carnegie’s self-help book lessons about ingratiation through phony smiles. As director Chilcott lays out in exhaustive detail, those skills, as well as his amazing memory and troubled upbringing with a strictly religious grandmother and a rebellious, incompetent-criminal mother, quickly made him an angry, bitter and dangerously unhinged individual.
Helter Skelter eschews a straightforward chronological structure in order to both tantalize audiences with its most sensational elements, and to create a layered impression of how Manson came to be—and to seduce so many into his harem. The portrait painted here is one of a psychotic leader preying upon the weak and vulnerable in traditional cult fashion: tempting wayward individuals with promises of love and acceptance, then isolating them from the world, and finally perpetrating abuse to further weaken resistance to his authority, as well as to make his followers cling even tighter to him. He was a small, nasty man with little education or artistic ability, and yet Chilcott’s docuseries persuasively contends that he was the figure ideally suited to exploit this particular late-’60s moment to horrific ends—the key component of a “perfect storm” that ended in ruin.
“The portrait painted here is one of a psychotic leader preying upon the weak and vulnerable in traditional cult fashion…”
Though Share, Lake, Schram and others give first-hand accounts of their experiences alongside Manson in Helter Skelter, they’re rarely asked to address the insanity of their past actions or beliefs, and the show’s failure to put them on the spot—about their gullibility, their criminality, and their continued support of Manson even after it was clear he had masterminded his atrocities—tends to grate. Share can only muster the admission that, when she looks back on her ordeal, she finds it all “sad,” which is at once a laughable understatement and a revealing confession that she still doesn’t quite get it. Fortunately, the evidence damningly speaks for itself, and the eventual snippets of Manson chatting at courtroom desks and in hallways further underline the lunacy of his ethos and behavior, and the pitifulness of those who chose to buy into it at any point along the way.
While Helter Skelter’s unconventional timeline approach to its material means that it sometimes doubles back on itself—thereby suggesting it might have handled its story in five rather than six installments—the series proves about as definitive as one could expect. Additionally employing old interviews with Polanski, gruesome crime scene snapshots, and input from Manson’s childhood neighbors, it covers so many interconnected features of this nightmare that it provides a panoramic view of the entire volatile era. More than that, however, what ultimately materializes is an idea of Manson as both a magically magnetic charlatan and a puny, pathetic wannabe, one who took advantage of dupes in order to inflate—and maintain—his own self-importance. He may have thought of himself as both Jesus and the devil, a reflection and embodiment of society’s ills, but what he looks and sounds like in Helter Skelter is less an endlessly fascinating monster than a dime-store cultist most notable for corrupting the age of innocence in which he operated.
Helter Skelter premieres on EPIX on Sun. July 26, 10 p.m. ET/PT.