By Rob Blackwelder
Despite being transferred from a questionable print and narrated in a dry, dated, "Dragnet" style, this 1976 made-for-TV movie that meticulously details the capture and trial of Charles Manson remains attention-grabbing and quite effectively chilling, if not exactly exciting.
Following the LAPD investigation as the cult leader's string of group murders in 1969 are all too slowly connected by sloppy police work, director Tom Gries makes superb use of freeze-frames, superimposition and a ersatz-Hitchcockian score (heavy on the high-tension strings) to ratchet up the anxiety level -- even before he reveals any of the gruesome particulars through potently nightmarish flashbacks during cult members' contentious courtroom testimony.
Some aspects of "Helter Skelter" are problematic (the filmmakers don't know much about evidence handling) or haven't aged well (the spaced-out psycho-hippie bliss of Manson's followers is filtered through the eyes of middle-aged Hollywood squares). But the film, fascinating in its historical exactitude, is anchored by the dead-on psychotic showmanship of Steve Railsback as Manson and the strong performance of George DiCenzo as District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who manages to pull off both a Joe Friday-esque deadpan and an overly passionate courtroom demeanor, all while being saddled with awkward on-screen narration.
THE FILM: ***