03 December 2012

Helter Skelter

United States - 1976
Director - Tom Gries
Key Video, 1985, VHS
Run Time -1 hour, 59 minutes
(cut by nearly an hour from its original TV length)

The time honored tradition of Hippy hating was born mere moments after its target. Twinned from the plaid-jacketed, buzz-cut mid-century Company Man, the Hippy was an ideal scapegoat for an isolationist generation. Representing social rebellion, the Hippy also promised an escape from that same stifling society. The Hippy was the repressed desire of a frightened culture. Having spilled itself from the television screens of the nation for nigh on a decade, Vietnam had poisoned the cultural pool and a populace addicted to the visceral lunacy of social breakdown was jonesing for their next fix of televisual carnage. Based on the bestselling book of the same title, this 1976 TV epic was perfect. Written as it was by Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney who prosecuted the case against Manson, Helter Skelter is an exemplary case of spectacular polarizing demonology.

First our competing protagonists, each inseparable from the other for each is a negative image of the other. The Tate/LaBianca victims constitute the America we admire and envy; rich, famous and beautiful socialites, as clean and untouchable as they are unattainable. They are essentially the American Dream promised. Contrast this with Manson and his “Family,” a pack of unwashed, filth encrusted, fatherless maniacs inspired by a group of drug-taking foreign musicians to do the unthinkable: literally and figuratively puncture the barrier between the dream and the nightmare. Manson was the leakage of sin (the fringe, poverty and non-conformity) into the blinding promise of salvation (the center, success, comfort.)

The irony is that, though the film is cloaked in the trappings of secularity and rational legal procedure as the machinations of justice move inexorably onward, the puritanical framework of the whole debacle can’t help but reveal itself with handwringing glee. Consisting of roughly two halves Helter Skelter first uses an appeal to visceral emotion to elicit an endorsement of the preeminence of judiciary law.

The crimes and their lead-up are presented in classic TV true-crime expose fashion complete with time signatures at the bottom of the screen and stern narration provided by that icon of objective justice, the prosecuting attorney. One of the great selling points of the movie was that it was filmed on location at the actual crime scene using actual pieces of evidence as props. Friends of the victims are shown weeping and vomiting at the sight of the dead bodies that litter the yard of the lavishly furnished home. The proximity of the holy artifacts, the imaginary irrational inspires in its audience (both TV and actors) a visceral reaction and a rapturous appeal to the logic of legal justice.

Yet in the second half of the film when it transitions to the trial (again recreated but ‘present tense’)  it is the very idea of justice elicited by the sin/crime that now demands the condemnation of emotion. The crushing normalcy of modern culture is what inspired Charlie and his cohort to ecstatic messianic prophesying. Now that the film has elicited our emotional endorsement of the rational, it uses that rationality to condemn ‘irrational’ emotion.

Ending with the threat of further spectacle, Helter Skelter reminds us that in just two years time (1978) Charlie, and by proxy his transgressive ‘vision’ would be up for parole. Listening to Charlie’s courtroom ranting as delivered by a young Steve Railsback one can’t shake the realization that he’s right, the culture that condemns him is the same one that created him. The world loves to hate a Hippy because s/he is a necessary illusion, a foil for our own normalcy.

Innumerable serial-killer and real-crime films and television programs have come since, but Helter Skelter was exceptional because it kicked down the gate. Hippys were the perfect scapegoat because like Commies, they were easily painted as outsiders, not because of what they were but for what they represented; opting out, rejection of the establishment. In that case Charlie Manson, at least insofar as Television was concerned, was the perfect Hippy. He transformed secular right and wrong into religious good and evil merging marketplace and mythology and making the Puritanical sin and atonement binary commercially palatable to a “secular” mass audience.

I found this flick on that sweet, sweet Key Video box above, but it is available on DVD. This cover is from DVD Covers.

 This VHS sleeve insert and the courtroom image above are on loan from Black Hole Reviews
Top image of George DiCenzo as Vincent Bugliosi and bottom image of shaven Charlie are from The Stuff You Gotta Watch

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