Although Hitler, O.J. Simpson, Ronald Reagan and Charles Manson make for an unlikely quartet, TV historians will link them as subjects CBS exploited — with varying degrees of success and controversy — in an early 21st century push to jumpstart its Sunday movie franchise. And while this is a less-than-propitious time for renewed examination of Manson’s crimes (as evidenced by extensive editing that delayed the movie’s availability to critics), what emerges is arguably the best of the lot. It’s a riveting look at the sensational murders whose focus departs enough from its eponymous 1976 predecessor to stand on its own.
Notwithstanding CBS’ bloodthirsty preoccupation with presenting notorious killers each May sweeps (Hitler last year, Manson now, and — what? — “Stalin: His Boyhood Years” in 2005?), writer-director John Gray (“Martin and Lewis”) has crafted a taut, unsettling portrait powered by a topnotch cast.
Jeremy Davies probably should have consulted Steve Railsback, star of the original “Helter Skelter,” about career options for playing anything other than a lunatic post-Manson, but he nevertheless delivers a dazzling, wild-eyed performance that plumbs deeper into the strange control the cult figure exercised over his “family.”
Almost equally good are Clea DuVall (HBO’s “Carnivale”) as Linda Kasabian, who would eventually become the star witness against Manson, and Marguerite Moreau as Susan Atkins, who recounts the murder spree with almost impish glee. Yet even smaller roles are particularly well cast, such as Marek Probosz’s dead-on Roman Polanski, shown dealing with grief and innuendo in the wake of wife Sharon Tate’s murder.
Then again, the best bit of casting may have actually been below the line, as composer Mark Snow (“The X-Files”) provides an appropriately creepy, percussive score — capturing all the terror and menace that the muted visuals are meant to convey.
After an opening-credit montage sets the tumult of the late 1960s, viewers meet the cult through the eyes of new arrival Kasabian, who quickly learns how blindly Manson’s followers obey him. ” ‘Why’ is banned,” he states early on. ” ‘Why’ don’t belong here.”
Frustrated in efforts to disseminate his warped message through music (as Hitler was, interestingly, in his ambitions as a painter), Manson loses patience waiting for “Helter Skelter” — his term for an apocalyptic race war between blacks and whites. So he decides to trigger those events through a series of disturbingly random murders, hoping blacks will be blamed.
Gray spends just enough time with Manson’s victims — including the LaBiancas and pregnant actress Tate (Whitney Dylan) — to humanize them as people before they become crime-scene photos. Even tightly edited, the killings remain grisly, with the most detailed reenactment coming in the pic’s final hour during the trial — a savvy decision, given content concerns and the 8 p.m. start time.
This “Helter Skelter” is also, somewhat mercifully, less a paean to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s ego than the previous incarnation. Played by Bruno Kirby with steely resolve and distractingly unfortunate hair, Bugliosi enters the picture late in the game — as Manson initially opts to defend himself in the circuslike proceedings.
In the closing act, the movie loses some of its momentum, getting caught up in the bizarre movement to transform Manson into a folk hero and the investigation into facts already gruesomely depicted. Yet its precisely the enduring fascination with Manson, along with media hysteria over more recent atrocities by disaffected youths, which make this story so timely even now — the tale of a false prophet that, at least here, seldom strikes a false note.