I'll never forget the evening I was browsing the local video store. On the shelf I ran across a copy of the 1976 made-for-TV miniseries Helter Skelter. Since I had never seen the film and had read the Vincent Bugliosi book on which it was based, I decided to rent it. Knowing full well the original series was around 200-plus minutes long, I picked up both copies of the tape assuming they were parts 1 and 2. With a line waiting behind me on that busy evening, the clerk looked at both tapes and screamed across the store, "Is Helter Skelter two tapes or just one!"
Every customer in the store stared at me, and I blushed as if I had just rented Showgirls. To this day, there's this ghastly boogeyman aura that surrounds Charles Manson and his puppet clique of attractive, promiscuous, murderous teenagers. This video version was only 98 minutes long, and for some strange reason, the store had two identical copies. Stupid me. Oh well, the original version of Helter Skelter is to be released on DVD April 20. So friends, family and dogs can now wallow in the full 200-minute criminal epic.
After viewing the full-length version, I was surprised how closely it remained true to the known facts. The trial itself, which takes up the second half, is based entirely on court transcripts. And it gives us the best scene when Manson abruptly decides to make a statement to the courtroom. The jury was appropriately led out of court, though this was irrelevant to Mr. Charlie Boy. His speech was intended for reporters and audience members. The rambling proclamation, in which he discussed his skewed philosophy, is authentic (though I doubt he delivered it with unblinking eyes a la actor Steve Railsback). For the one and only moment of this stagy 1970s production (I was expecting Jack Webb to make an appearance any second) we see inside the demented philosophy of this horrible cult. It's probably as good a clue as any as to why these kids began committing random murders around Los Angeles during the summer of Woodstock, 1969.
Fascination with the Charles Manson cult is nothing new. The book Helter Skelter has remained in print for years, making Bugliosi millions. A new made-for-TV movie is to be broadcast May 16, including additional facts unknown in 1976. Fresh converts can now revel in a new-millennium retelling of the Manson mythos. Believe it or not, one can find as many books related to Manson as to the JFK assassination. It's a damn cottage industry. I have read several, the best of the lot being The Family, first published in 1971.