While so much of the 1960s counterculture preached peace and love — particularly in California — lifelong criminal turned hippie cult leader Charles Manson set in motion what he hoped would be a very different charge forward to “enlightenment.”
Over the nights of August 9 and August 10, Charlie dispatched members of the Manson Family — his disciples with whom he lived in the desert — on “creepy crawls” into upscale Los Angeles neighborhoods.
The Family’s mission was to ignite “Helter Skelter,” Manson’s theory about an inevitable race war in which Black people would triumph over white people, but would then still look to Manson and his followers to be their leaders.
In addition to construing this notion from “messages” in Beatles songs, Charlie also told his female followers they would literally evolve into winged fairies following the revolution.
Amped up on this concept, agents of the Manson Family infamously slaughtered movie star Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, along with every guest who had gathered at her house for a dinner party.
The next evening, the Family barbarically murdered supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary LaBianca.
At each scene, the Family left terrifyingly ominous signatures; e.g. — “Healter Skelter [sic],” “Political Piggy” and other messages smeared on bodies, walls, and appliances. They also left a barbecue fork sticking straight up out of Leno LaBianca’s stomach.
Manson and the Family were under investigation for other crimes at the time and, in October 1969, LAPD detectives made the necessary connections to bust them en masse.
The ensuing Manson trial proved to be even more mesmerizing and frightening to the public than news of the killings. The suspects and their antics — especially Charlie — could not have more bombastically embodied establishment fears regarding “evil hippies.”
Ultimately, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi successfully convicted Charles Manson, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten for the “Helter Skelter” massacres.
Bugliosi later wrote the book Helter Skelter, the definitive account of the Manson saga from a legal standpoint, which was then adapted into the landmark 1976 CBS film of the same name.
Charles Manson remains alive and exuding endless variations of “unwell” behind bars. He has ruled as America’s unofficial boogieman for almost 50 years now. As so much of the Manson Family story is intertwined with Hollywood and the entertainment industry, it’s only natural that all involved continue to inspire movie treatments — and ongoing fascination.
What follows are movies that directly name Manson as a protagonist and incorporate historic elements into their plots. Come back next week for a look at films merely “inspired” by Charlie and his Family — dramas and shockers that may not specifically invoke Manson outright, but that are nonetheless clearly smeared in the sacrificial juices of the slaughtered “political piggy.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF MADNESS aka THE HELTER SKELTER MURDERS (1971)
Shot guerilla-style in black-and-white, this feverish curiosity combines vignettes of hippie decadence, mass slaughter, and legal testimony in surprising succession to create an impressively jolting effect. Producer Wade Williams attended the Manson trials prior to filming. He obviously paid attention.
Initially released as The Other Side of Madness, in 1976 distributors retitled the movie The Helter Skelter Murders following the ratings smash of TV movie Helter Skelter on CBS. It was then rushed back into theaters with the ad line, “Exclusive! Now You Can See the Movie That Could Not Be Shown on TV!”
THE MANSON MASSACRE aka THE CULT (1971)
Make no mistake: The berserk brain-scrambler once titled The Cult, then repackaged as The Manson Massacre conjures Charlie and the Family in its title only (and, okay, also in the tagline, “Helter Skelter Was Only the Beginning!”).
In a similar manner, by way of sloppily arranged depictions of a nonprofessional cast engaging in fake-looking orgies and faker-looking gore murders, The Manson Massacre conjures the notion of a “movie” only in the fact that it’s shot on film and, remarkably, once played to paying audiences in theaters.
Makee K. Blaisdell plays Manson stand-in Invar, a monk-robed occult guru who sleeps in a coffin and cohabitates with five young women. They get freaky — and not just by driving around in a hearse (although they do that). They also engage in group copulation, grave robbing, and even the shoplifting of sex toys.
Writer-director “Kentucky Jones” boasts no other show biz credits. One can understand how that’s possible.
HELTER SKELTER (1976)
CBS’s two-night prime-time juggernaut based on the best-seller by Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi captivated audiences in record numbers, racked up Emmy Award nominations, and both launched and largely limited the career of Steve Railsback who shocked and mesmerized viewers — brilliantly — as Charles Manson.
Character actor George DiCenzo is rock-solid as Bugliosi, and the movie’s fact-based dramatic elements are all top-notch for a TV drama of the era.
Above and beyond it all, though, is Railsback, so perfectly conveying Manson’s almost supernatural charisma and hypnotic way with an outburst. As noted earlier, the performance proved to perhaps actually be too good, as Railsback never notched another role of sufficient prominence to match the power he displays here.
Moviegoers are largely thought to have been unable to shake the impression Railsback made as Manson. He went on to the acclaimed meta-drama The Stunt Man (1980), which acquired a cult following among cineastes.
Since then, though, Railsback has been largely relegated to horror productions and B-movie curiosities, of which, Turkey Shoot (1982), Lifeforce (1985), and the Africa-set E.T. rip-off Nukie (1987) are especially … noteworthy. His best-known post-Manson role, ironically or not, is that of the titular true-life murderer in Ed Gein (2000).
MANSON FAMILY MOVIES (1984)
Manson Family Movies provides one of the earliest examples of what would we now refer to as “found-footage films.”
Alas, that’s just about all MFM consists of: nonlinear 8mm recordings of amateur performers dressed like the notorious homicidal hippies just hanging out, getting high, getting it on, and then going plumb loco on other nonactors done up as the victims — including, amusingly, a “Sharon Tate” whose pregnancy is conveyed by way of some kind of playground ball under her dress.
SUMMER DREAMS: THE STORY OF THE BEACH BOYS (1990)
Of all the lore associated with Charles Manson, few episodes beguile more than the Family’s involvement with Dennis Wilson, drummer for surf-rock giants, the Beach Boys.
Dennis initially picked up a couple of hitchhiking Manson girls and brought them home. Shortly thereafter, the Family fully moved in to Wilson’s oceanfront bachelor pad.
Charlie, a frustrated singer-songwriter who long dreamed of being a rock star, used his new friend to meet other performers, including Neil Young (who saw some talent in Manson’s music), as well as top-tier record-industry executives (who apparently did not share Neil Young’s opinion).
Michael Reid MacKay handles Manson duties in Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys, an enjoyable cheesy ABC TV-movie. The part is charmingly in keeping with characters from the rest of MacKay’s filmography, which includes “The Mummy” in The Monster Squad (1987), “Gargoyle” in Cast a Deadly Spell (1991), and “Skinny Man/Sloth Victim” in Se7en (1995).
THE MANSON FAMILY (2003)
Mondo madman and viciously talented underground filmmaker Jim Van Bebber labored for more than 15 years to bring The Manson Family to the screen. The passion comes across as potently as the madness does among the film’s protagonists.
Between 1988 and its 2004 theatrical debut, Van Bebber shot The Manson Family sporadically, hosted “work in progress” screenings, secured killer soundtrack cuts from industrial metal band Skinny Puppy, and ultimately delivered a triumph.
Upon arrival, The Manson Family prompted vaunted film critic Roger Ebert to pen one of his most thoughtful and intriguing reviews. He praised Van Bebber’s skills to the point of warning potential viewers to approach with caution, writing:
“Convention requires me to assign stars to every film. Do I give ‘The Manson Family’ four stars because it does what it does so successfully and uncompromisingly, or do I give it zero stars, for the same reason? I will settle on three, because it is remarkable enough I do not want to dismiss it. That doesn’t mean I think you should see it.”
HELTER SKELTER (2004)
The original CBS version of Helter Skelter stands as a definitive document of its time. The network’s three-hour remake 18 years later is a weak hit of mind-expansion at best.
In fact, once the film hit video, it was branded Helter Skelter: Director’s Cut, with the obvious intention of convincing potential renters that this was some kind of “now it can be shown” sex-and-violence-soaked revamp of the original. It’s not.
LIVE FREAKY! DIE FREAKY! (2006)
An (almost) all-rock-star cast gives voice to stop-motion animated figures in writer-director John Roecker’s one-of-a-kind sci-fi comedy romp, Live Freaky! Die Freaky!
Tim Armstrong of the band Rancid (who also produced) narrates a futuristic saga about a desert nomad in the year 3069 who discovers the book Helter Skelter and envisions the Manson Family as Biblical figures.
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong voices “Charlie” and even sings the actual Manson-composed song, “Mechanical Man.” It’s a trip.
MANSON, MY NAME IS EVIL (2009)
Originally (and in some versions still) titled Leslie, My Name Is Evil, Kristen Hager stars as real-life Manson acolyte Leslie Van Houten.
This self-consciously campy satire focuses largely on Van Houten’s trial as viewed through the eyes of naïve and smitten Christian juror Perry (Gregory Smith).
This upstanding and proper young citizen’s infatuation with this killer hippie chick, to put it mildly, messes with Perry’s head.
HAUNTING CHARLES MANSON (2014)
Haunting Charles Manson chronicles a somewhat perverse, but not uninteresting plot.
Imagine if the spirit of filmmaker Roman Polanski (Robert Marlow) spooks elderly prison inmate Charles Manson (Stephen Cardwell) into confessing all his crimes — in particular, his ordering and orchestrating the murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate (April Rogalski).
Watch in wonder … then watch and wonder.
HOUSE OF MANSON aka MANSON (2014)
Ryan Kiser delivers the (very bad) goods as Charlie You-Know-Who in House of Manson, a fright-film-filtered account of the Family during the debauchery-laden days leading up to the two big death bashes.
Although House of Manson is of the same ilk as all those cheap, direct-to-video serial killer cash-ins from the previous decade (BTK, Gacy, Ted Bundy, et al), it’s more of an actual “movie” than most of those. Let’s call it watchable.
MANSON FAMILY VACATION (2015)
The press notes for Manson Family Vacation spell out the plot as such: “Two brothers tour Charles Manson murder sites. One is a family man. The other is devoted to The Family.”
There you have it — except Manson Family Vacation does better than its precious premise, and manages to be emotionally rich and dramatically engaging while keeping the surprises coming.
Nick (Jay Duplass) is the straight-laced sibling. Conrad (Linas Phillips) is the long-haired, unwashed, vagabond screw-up. Nick accompanies Conrad on his quest to personally see the true-life crime scenes.
Along the way, the brothers impersonate the grandsons of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and hook up with a ragged squad of miscreants attempting to maintain Manson’s philosophies in the modern world.
Whatever one’s interest in Charlie may be, Manson Family Vacation is a journey eminently worth undertaking.
MANSON’S LOST GIRLS (2016)
What you need to know about Manson’s Lost Girls is contained in the film’s official description: “The psychedelic summer of 1969 comes to life in the Lifetime Original Movie, “Manson’s Lost Girls,” featuring the next generation of Hollywood stars MacKenzie Mauzy, (“Into the Woods”), Eden Brolin (“I Dream Too Much”), Greer Grammer (“Awkward”), and Christian Madsen (“Divergent”).”
Yes, this is the Lifetime take on Charlie and Company, with Jeff Ward (of TV’s The Mentalist) portraying what may be the most laughably handsome version of Charles Manson ever filmed — except, perhaps, for Gethin Anthony in the 2015–16 NBC series, Aquarius.
The ’60s may have been weird, but what does it say of our modern times that male models get cast as a filth-encrusted, 4-foot-11 pimp turned self-styled pope who ordered doped-up teenagers to kill for him?
Main image: Helter Skelter (1976) promotional image for overseas theatrical release