After last year’s 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders spawned a legion of documentary reflections on Charles Manson’s reign of terror, plus a Mindhunter story arc and Quentin Tarantino’s latest revision of a historical tragedy, you might have thought you were at least temporarily free from The Family.
You would be wrong. Feeding the never-ending fascination with the aspiring musician, his harem of hippies and the gory crimes that shook the country is Epix’s Helter Skelter: An American Myth, from director Lesley Chilcott and a production team led by the ubiquitous Greg Berlanti. Like Epix’s Slow Burn, this take on Helter Skelter is another six-hour documentary telling a story that — though it’s been recounted exhaustively — is still capable of fueling nightmares when delivered with proficiency (if not efficiency). Which this version, for the most part, does.
As one can tell from the title, Helter Skelter: An American Myth has perhaps a couple different things going on. Yes, “Helter Skelter” refers to the Beatles song that allegedly inspired Manson’s paranoid delusions of an upcoming “race war” — or at least inspired Manson to use the prospect of an upcoming race war as a means of controlling his followers. But the title is also very closely identified with attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s bestseller about the entire Manson case, including the trial, which started 50 years ago this week. Bugliosi, writing from the perspective of a successful prosecutor, was all about reaching a solution or a resolution when it came to the Family, the motivations behind their crimes and Manson’s influence on the whole thing.
Chilcott’s approach is much more frustrating and, in that, probably far more honest. While admiring of Bugliosi’s proficient handling of the case, Chilcott more frequently presents Manson as a fame-hungry con man and if there’s an answer for what Manson truly did or didn’t believe, or what his followers did or didn’t believe, it’s elusive.
Helter Skelter: An American Myth isn’t quite distanced enough from the story to be exclusively an outsider commentary on what captivated people about Manson back then and why he continues to be a figure we analyze and deconstruct. At the same time, it isn’t quite thoroughly embedded enough with the key figures in this world to reveal anything deeper from within. Or maybe there are no deeper truths and that’s the thing that Helter Skelter: An American Myth is actually about? That Charles Manson and his Family were a product and consequence of a moment of general cultural upheaval, the tragic intersection of counterculture idealism and American fragmentation?
The challenge, at times, is figuring out when Helter Skelter: An American Myth is intentionally accentuating the unknowability and mythologizing of Charles Manson and when those things are byproducts of questionable choices or limitations in the filmmaking.
The first episode, for example, introduces the context of Los Angeles in the late ’60s and, relying heavily on archival news footage, it presents the Manson murders in broad strokes. But then the series shifts to a more biographical look at Manson in the next episode. Then when the chronology gets back to the murders, all of the information from the first episode is repeated and rarely with additional shadings. You keep watching and waiting for Chilcott to humanize the murder victims, something Bugliosi foregrounds in his book, and that’s held for a later episode — and, frankly, not done especially well. More ghoulishly, you keep expecting a more graphic recounting of the murders and that’s held for the finale and delivered in dispassionate form mostly by Bugliosi’s assistant counsel, Stephen Kay.
Nearly every key figure in the case wrote a memoir about it, and most of them, even from prison, have done myriad interviews over the years. So it’s never quite clear if it’s by choice or necessity that the featured on-camera Family participation for this series is limited to Dianne Lake, Catherine Share and — to such a minimal degree that I’m not sure why they bothered — Stephanie Schram. These three were among the least involved in the Family’s criminality and have among the least insight, making them most useful for matter-of-fact recollections of orgies (and sexual assaults), day-to-day life on Spahn Ranch and generally less salacious topics. It’s notable and not always obvious why the series has more people who vaguely knew Manson during his rough upbringing in West Virginia than have direct knowledge of or insight into the murders that made this a story we’re still retelling today.
When Chilcott is able to balance first-person narratives, an assemblage of earlier interviews and curated archival footage, Helter Skelter: An American Myth is gripping. The last two episodes, using journalist Ivor Davis — credited with the quickie Manson book that first introduced Bugliosi to the “Helter Skelter” justification — in place of a narrator, are especially good. They’re well-sourced and well-documented. Earlier episodes, using Manson biographer Jeff Guinn as a similar narrating figure, don’t have quite as many visual artifacts and utilize lackluster (and thankfully never graphic) re-enactments. Sometimes they’re metaphorical, like shots of young Manson wandering through empty schools and prisons to represent the moment of his arrested development, and aren’t bad. Blurry-faced re-enactments of happy flower children doing nothing in particular are more generic and enhance the series less.
The temptation with Manson has always been to want the clearest and most defined answers. He was a racist. He craved power through sex. He just wanted somebody to let him make a record. He was a madman. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertently, Helter Skelter: An American Myth pokes at our desire to simplify the unfathomable. It’s easy to wish that this series were more capable of getting to “the truth,” and unsettling to have to find a way to accept that no such thing exists.
Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Epix, premiering July 26.