Coming 40 years after “Helter Skelter,” with countless cinematic portraits (including NBC’s recent “Aquarius”) in between, it would be hard for “Manson’s Lost Girls” to bring much new or fresh to the story. Still, this Lifetime movie – focusing on Linda Kasabian, who ultimately left the family and testified in court against them – is a credible account of that historical moment, albeit with a bit too much grooviness, perhaps unavoidably, for its own good. Featuring a solid cast of Hollywood legacies that almost surely cost less to assemble than the music rights, those fascinated by the Manson mythology shouldn’t be disappointed.
“I finally found my home, a family that loved me,” Kasabian (MacKenzie Mauzy) explains near the beginning, in a narration that runs throughout. In short order, she rifles through leaving her unpleasant home situation as a teen, having a baby, and eventually running into Manson’s followers, who lead her to the ranch where they all live. She immediately falls into bed with Manson enforcer Tex Watson (Christian Madsen) in this ostensible egalitarian paradise of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Except it’s not, as the messianic leader, Charlie (Jeff Ward), becomes increasingly agitated and erratic as his hoped-for music deal falls apart, and begins to focus on Helter Skelter, the race war he envisions between blacks and whites. Initially drawn to him, Linda drops acid, steals money and engages in various carnal pleasures (the writhing bodies are shot artfully), before Charlie turns toward violence. That culminates in the grisly Tate-Labianca murders, for which she served as a driver and observer, while some of the other girls – most notably Susan Atkins (a very creepy Eden Brolin) – eagerly joined in the carnage.
During the build-up to Manson’s spree, the movie written by Matthew Tabak and producer Stephen Kronish (who turned out Lifetime’s miniseries “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe”) and directed by Leslie Libman, includes too many musical montages, set to songs like “Happy Together” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” The camerawork, meanwhile, is grainy and jerky, clearly intended to convey the surreal, spaced-out nature of life within Manson’s orbit.
The main wrinkle, such as it is, involves seeing it all unfold through the eyes of Kasabian, whose fear for her child was vital in breaking Manson’s hold over her. Even then, months passed before Manson and his followers were implicated, and the movie ends somewhat abruptly, relying on the obligatory crawl for those too lazy to use Wikipedia.
Speaking of footnotes, the cast – while uniformly good – has a Miss Golden Globes quality to it, including as it does the progeny of actors Kelsey Grammer (daughter Greer plays Leslie Van Houten), James Brolin and Michael Madsen.
Granted, one could legitimately argue there’s scant need for another version of this material. Yet it’s been nearly two generations since Manson permeated the public consciousness in 1969, and pivoting toward the women provides about all the excuse required to put Lifetime’s stamp on this spare retelling – one that’s lurid enough to fit the network’s movie profile, and still make “Manson’s Lost Girls” a reasonably good find.