Charles Manson in Movies and Pop Culture

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood...we look back at the films that helped make Charles Manson the rock star he wished he really was.

As Charles Manson, or at least Steve Railsback’s approximation of him, is being led from the courtroom for the last time at the end of the 1976 miniseries Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) tells the man, “Everyone’s already forgotten about you, Charlie.” Well, not exactly–and in part thanks to that miniseries.

In the 45 years since members of the Manson Family brutally slaughtered seven people on the nights of Aug. 8 and 9, 1969, Charles Manson has spawned more books, articles, films, TV specials, underground comics and t-shirts than any other criminal in history. Manson has become a one-man industry, which is pretty amazing for a mass murderer never convicted of killing anyone. He’s been mythologized, fetishized, exploited, and commercialized to the point at which Manson himself barely exists anymore, as a number of the films below prove. The public is hungry for anything with the name “Manson” attached to it, and the media is happy to oblige (which is part of the reason Manson was no longer allowed to give TV interviews long before he died).

From the moment he and members of his family (Tex Watson, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, etc.) were charged with the murders of seven people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon. Films with a Mansonian angle (Deathmaster, I Drink your Blood) were rushed into production. Films that were nearly finished at the time of the trial were given a quick rewrite to include a messianic hippie character. Some didn’t go that far, merely changing the poster art, the tagline, or the title to cash in on the Tate/LaBianca killings. And the trial wasn’t even over yet before the first quickie exploitation cheapie based specifically and directly on the case was rushed into theaters.

It both does and doesn’t make sense that Hollywood would want to capitalize on the case, given it was their own who were killed, and those who weren’t were paranoid they would be next. But the story was just too freaky to leave alone, what with cute hippie killers, beautiful and glamorous movie star victims, a desert compound, orgies, drugs, a false messiah, a failed rock ‘n roll connection, and an apocalyptic scheme.

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In the decades since the murders, there have been far too many Manson films and TV shows to list in anything shy of an encyclopedia, but here are perhaps the most notable of the lot, for one reason or another.

The Helter Skelter Murders (1970)

Even though it’s become the core of the mythology, Manson has always adamantly (and dubiously) denied he had any kind of zany race war plan based on his interpretations of the Beatles’ White Album. He can deny it all he wants, but no one’s gonna believe him. Notable for having been made while the trial was still underway, Frank Howard’s one and only film comes off like an arty black and white Super-8 student film trying really really hard to be the next Honeymoon Killers.

The long opening crawl explains (obviously for legal reasons) that all the details in the film were cribbed from newspaper and magazine accounts of the case. Given how early this was, that may explain a lot. Also for legal reasons, no names are used in the film, though a couple of Manson recordings do appear on the soundtrack. It also makes sense that the Manson-esque character is so completely off the mark, since so few members of the public at that point had ever heard him speak.

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Oh, there are any number of damning troubles with the picture: it was shot silent with poorly overdubbed sound; the actors were amateurs at best; and the hippie characters overuse terms like “dig it” and “get it on.” But the film still has an accidentally artistic, verite quality to it, and even if it’s not exactly what you might call historically accurate (it’s a damn exploitation quickie, after all) the central murder sequence is believably chaotic and brutal. And you sure gotta give Howard credit for trying.

Watch The Helter Skelter Murders on Amazon

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The Manson Family (2003)

I liked indie writer/director Jim Van Bebber’s debut, the “street gangs in Ohio” epic, Deadbeat at Dawn. So I had big hopes for the follow-up. Thanks to a parade of all the usual indie film bugaboos, it would be over a decade before The Manson Family was completed, but even so it had such potential. A TV host (Carl Day) is preparing a 20th anniversary special about the Tate/LaBianca murders consisting of contemporary interviews with Manson Family members and others connected with the case. As they tell the story in flashback, the host starts receiving bizarre threats from modern day Manson cultists. In a perfect world, this could’ve been a story with hints of Rashomon that worked on three levels. It’s not that Van Bebber wasn’t aiming for that, but what we get instead (I don’t think he could help himself) is a double whammy of exploitation.

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So sure you get all the slashing and hacking and blood and gore of the murders, but you also get lots and lots of hippie sex (something the other films tiptoe around). Every other scene, it seems, there’s another orgy, or another couple hippies going at it in a field. In fact, at heart it’s really a pretty extreme softcore film with a few ultraviolent interludes. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing if that’s what you’re after, and in that sense it’s probably more historically accurate than most.

What bugs me is that so much of the film is a hodgepodge of material lifted from other sources. the interviewees recreate interviews verbatim from Robert Hendrickson’s 1973 documentary Manson (see below). And I’ll tell you, hearing these same lines coming out of the mouths of subpar actors simply doesn’t have the same impact, especially when you take it out of context. I’m not exactly sure why Van Bebber drops in some long clips from Richard Kern’s underground short “You Killed Me First,” or why the final recordings of Jim Jones are played almost incessantly throughout the film. Again, I think Van Bebber was up to something—I mean, the film looks really good—but what we get is an incoherent mess mostly made up of other people’s work, but with lots of hippie sex.

Watch The Manson Family on Amazon

Six Degrees of Helter Skelter (2009)

The fetishization of Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders may have reached its high water mark in this doc. Scott Michaels, an actual Hollywood tour guide with a trunk full of pointless (but often interesting) trivia at his disposal, walks us past 30 or 40 locations around Hollywood connected with the case in one way or another. It’s a Stations of the Cross for the morbid and bloodthirsty crowd. Along the way, he offers up tidbits of trivia, gossip, and unusual connections, occasionally dismissing urban myths: Hairdresser and victim Jay Sebring got Bruce Lee his first acting job in the U.S.; Sharon Tate likely had passing contact with several Family members before the murders; Manson was never a doorman at the Whiskey A-Go-Go and he never auditioned for The Monkees; and there was not a wild party going on at the Roman Polanski house that night.

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Some of the locations seem a bit of a stretch. Did we need an interview with the doctor who now lives in Sebring’s old house? Then there’s the gas station where Tex and the girls stopped after the Tate murders, which just happened to be the same gas station where James Dean filled up for the last time. Michaels, you might say, is a touch fixated. Because of that, you might want to do your research before slapping this one in. It’s not a doc for the casual Mansonite, as he regularly drops in references to people and incidents without offering any background explanation.

For the most part, Michaels sticks to the accepted mythology established by assistant district attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter, but in a much more obsessive and creepy way, reducing the murders of seven people to a collection of objects and locations and irrelevant factoids. Interspersed throughout we get the present LA County coroner’s interpretation of the original autopsy reports, which is interesting and informative if you don’t know what a ligature is.  

When you get right down to it though, it’s a doc about LA-area real estate (what’s still there, what’s not, what’s next door, what should be built where) hosted by a fanboy who won’t shut up. Still, I learned a few things I didn’t know before. Not that it was anything I really needed to know.

Watch Six Degrees of Helter Skelter on Amazon

Helter Skelter (1976)

If you were a morbid little 10-year-old in 1976, this two-part TV movie was the biggest event of the year. Even if you weren’t a morbid 10-year-old, it was a big deal. Parents and local TV stations were in a panic, wondering how to prevent impressionable kids from seeing something so terrifying and awful. Several major cities refused to air it at all. Where I was, they did what they could by airing it after the late news, as if that would stop any kid who wanted to from tuning in.

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Seeing it today, Tom Gries’ film, based directly on Vincent Bugliosi’s crazy-ass bestseller, isn’t all that terrifying, but remains the best Manson film of the lot in spite of everything. There’s very little by way of splattering blood and stomach carving, and the murders are recreated mostly through the power of suggestion. It’s a police and courtroom procedural told from Bugliosi’s perspective. Busy character actor George DiCenzo  stars as Bugliosi, and though he humanizes him as much as he can, he still comes off as a bit of a humorless stiff obsessed with winning the case.

read more: Sharon Tate was an Icon of Youth for the Decade of Youth

Not making his job any easier is a DA’s office and LAPD whose ranks are filled with dumb bastards who seem almost intent on dismissing or ignoring evidence when it’s placed right under their noses (I’m actually shocked they’d paint the LAPD as a bunch of incompetent boobs, but they did). While the first half of the film is a police procedural, in part two it becomes a legal procedural in which Bugliosi finds himself confronted with a legal system equally populated with morons and muttonheads. And oh, how he hates that Miranda ruling! On the flipside, the girls, especially Susan Atkins, are portrayed as a bunch of glassy-eyed dippy hippie chicks who barely know what they’re saying and are under the inescapable psychic dominance of Charlie.

And then there’s Charlie (Steve Railsback). I don’t know if the miniseries was being intentionally subversive here, but between it and Railsback, they make Manson the most sympathetic character of the lot. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but when he’s around, he’s magnetic. Better still, the script allows him to present much of Manson’s actual sworn testimony (one long remarkable statement) almost verbatim. Of course it may be in the film because that’s what Railsback prepared for his audition. The film, like the book, however, does push the nutty idea that Manson really did have magical psychic powers, allowing him to stop clocks and stay in contact with the girls wherever he was. It’s still a reasonably accurate recounting told from a crazy fame-starved asshole’s perspective. And I don’t mean Charlie. It’s just too bad the soundtrack had to rely on some dreadful, tepid Beatles covers.

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Helter Skelter (2004)

Well, at least the Beatles covers here had a little more zing to them, I’ll give it that. Forty years after Bugliosi published the book that made Manson a star, someone at CBS thought it was about time to reboot that old ‘76 made for television movie as yet another made for television movie. And if that original TV movie was one of the best takes we have on the case (sifted through Bugliosi’s nuttiness as it is), this is probably one of the very worst. Instead of a measured police and courtroom procedural, it plays much more like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the accepted Manson legend, doled out in convenient bite-sized pieces.

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So in the unintentionally hilarious first 30 seconds, Manson runs into Gary Hinman’s apartment with a sword, hacks off his ear, and runs away. Then boom, we meet Linda Kasabian (here portrayed as a lost and innocent waif), who shows up at the Spahn Ranch where all the other girls are cold and creepy and evil. Then boom, Manson is yelling at Brian Wilson and record producer Terry Melcher about why he’s not a rock star yet. Then boom, he explains his Helter Skelter/race war idea. Then boom, there’s are the murders. Then boom, Manson explains his dune buggy army. Then boom, we see that Manson has psychic powers. You get the idea.

It’s like they had a damn checklist. Yes, all your favorite Manson moments are here, without too much waiting and without any of that icky “insight” or “research” to muck it up. It’s a silly, childish cartoon take on a well-worn story, a myth that’s never been much concerned with historical accuracy from the beginning. Unlike other films that left Manson a mystical figure lurking about in the background, director John Gray pushes him to the forefront, allowing him to spout all those famous lines we’ve heard so often and love so much (“Do something witchy!”).

In the role, Jeremy Davies stays true to Gray’s comic book vision by playing Manson as a frothing, arm-flapping, wild-eyed lunatic, which must have been fun. Meanwhile, all the other members of the family fade and gel into a generic (but incredibly evil) haze. All except for that poor innocent Linda Kasabian (Clea DuVall), who tries to run away but comes back, and then agrees to turn state’s evidence.  Weird thing about the family members here, they all have hair and clothes that seem to come straight out of 2004.

At first the introduction of the great, baby-faced Bruno Kirby with his world-weary whine as the balding and cadaverous Bugliosi seemed an odd choice. But in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) he played Jann Wenner, another straight cat trying to comprehend and profit off the counterculture, so maybe it makes sense. He almost pulls it off too. It’s at that point though the film loses all touch with reality, as Gray tries to hammer home the “Helter Skelter” theory through a jumble of mismatched invented scenes and farcical flashbacks.

And where in LA (as one preliminary hearing sequence shows) are you going to find a courtroom lit with dramatic spotlights? When the trial finally begins, and I’m thinking there must be another hour left, boom, we get the closing credits right there. In the middle of the story. Well, no big loss, right? There’s nothing new here. Even with those few things they get right, there’s nothing that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. Except maybe those Beatles covers, which were keen.

Manson: 40 Years Later

The question that comes to mind as I watch this is “after 40 years, you’d think they’d come up with something new to say, right?” But apparently not.

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Despite the title of this History Channel doc, Manson is nowhere to be found except in some tired re-enactments. He remains a distant, purely mythical character, though they really push the “failed rock star out for revenge” angle. All the usual suspects are trotted out, but the selling point here is that Linda Kasabian talks on camera for the first time, repeating her testimony from the trial almost word for word, pause for pause. And then there’s good ol’ Bugliosi again. There’s not much new here, and they adhere closely to the accepted mythology.

Watch Manson: 40 Years Later on Amazon

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)

More than any documentary or historical drama claiming to tell “the whole true story,” Kenneth Anger’s silent experimental short is the most accurate and insightful bit of cinematic Mansonalia of the lot, even though it was made before the murders and it had nothing to do with Manson. Anger, author of Hollywood Babylon, always had an eye for the dark side, and latched onto the more shadowy edges of the ‘60s long before anyone knew the ‘60s even had a dark side. He was an initiate of Aleister Crowley, an early member of the church of Satan, friends with the Rolling Stones, and considered Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil his protégé. All that comes together in Demon Brother. As the story goes, in ‘68 he made a film called Lucifer Rising starring Beausoleil as Lucifer (Crowley’s, not the Christian version). The two had a falling out and Beausoleil allegedly stole the film, burying it in Death Valley. In ‘69, Anger took the leftover scraps of Lucifer Rising footage and pieced them together into Demon Brother.

So what we get is a collection of random shots of an albino, Bobby smoking pot from a skull, an elaborate funeral for a cat, a magical ceremony, Anton LaVey, Bobby with a solar swastika projected on his bare chest, clips from a concert the Rolling Stones played shortly after the death of Brian Jones, and several other incoherent images. It all has the feel of a mushroom trip, and is held together by a simple, repetitive score improvised by Mick Jagger as he plays the Moog for the first time.

Anger has described the film as “a sort of spell,” and if you consider that shortly after it was completed LaVey placed a public curse on the hippie movement, the Stones played Altamont, and the whole Manson business was set in motion when Beausoleil was convicted for the torture killing of musician/drug dealer Gary Hinman, well, it’s kinda spooky. It’s a prescient look at the mindset and the times, and accidentally says more than it meant to. Anger and Beausoleil later reconciled, and Beausoleil recorded the score to Anger’s second version of Lucifer Rising from prison. Anger had to get another actor to play the lead though.

Charles Manson Superstar (1989)

“The time grid we know as August 8th to 9th has always been a magnet for savage purification,” The opening line pretty well sets the tone of Nikolas Schreck’s pro-Manson documentary/interview. Schreck, a Nazi occultist goofball who takes himself painfully seriously, does a fine job of skewering the standard mythology and pointing up how the media turned Manson into a demonic supervillain in the public consciousness. At the same time, he sets about creating a new Manson mythology of his own, littering the narration with factoids and eerie coincidences much like those in Six Degrees of Helter Skelter, except in Schreck’s case, they all have some Satanic or National Socialist significance.

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What makes his video significant is it’s the only one in which Manson is allowed to speak at length for himself without commentary or interpretation. Given how rarely Manson appears or speaks in documentaries about him, this makes Superstar doubly important, and he comes off as a man with zero tolerance for bullshit, especially when it comes to people who try to “interpret” him or those (like Schreck and interviewee James Mason of the Universal Order) who try to latch onto him. While Manson does refutes the usual story, as expected, but he also swats away a number of Schreck’s own claims. While doing that he plays into the demon role on occasion, but always with a smirk. If you can ignore Schreck’s nonsense, it’s well worth it to see Manson isn’t necessarily a raving incoherent lunatic, although sometimes he does slip into a language all his own, which  involves a lot of arm-waving. Plus, you get that great Joe Coleman portrait of Charlie on the cover.

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Manson (1973)

The long-banned (in certain countries) Oscar nominated documentary is as aggravating as it is historically important. It was also director Robert Hendrickson’s only film until his 2007 follow-up, Inside the Manson Gang. In 1970, Hendrickson was given full access to the Spahn Ranch, where he interviewed members of the Manson Family before, during, and immediately after the trial. He also interviewed that nasally, uptight moral warrior Bugliosi, former family members like Bruce Davis and Brooks Poston, Manson’s former cellmate and several women who were in lock-up with the  girls. He intercuts the interviews with news footage and shots of the family going about their daily business (minus the orgies), all while offering some biographical background and a bit of editorializing that might’ve come straight from Bugliosi himself.

Everyone he talks to it seems to know exactly how Manson thinks, what his motivations were, and how he worked. Unfortunately we never get to hear from Charlie himself, save for a brief clip from his sworn testimony during the trial. Still, it’s a fascinating doc made without the interference of hindsight. It remains a film chock full of high points, most notably the interviews with Sandra Goode and Squeaky Fromme, who explain in lucid, rational terms the justification for killing anyone who gets in their way. It’s a point well-taken, considering they conduct the interviews while holding rifles. Other highlights include the interviews with Manson’s semi-coherent right hand man Clem Grogan and the disillusioned acid casualty Bruce Davis.

Sadly, though maybe necessarily, the film is marred by an overabundance of hippy-dippy psychedelic camera tricks and a godawful soundtrack provided by Poston and Davis. For it’s flaws, it remains a remarkable record of the time.