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Helter Skelter (2004) – DVD Review

Helter Skelter DVD cover


Written by: John Gray, based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry
Directed by: John Gray
Starring: Jeremy Davies, Clea DuVall, Bruno Kirby, Allison Smith, Eric Dane


  • Running audio commentary with director Gray and producer Mark Wolper
  • Additional scenes with optional commentary
  • Rehearsal footage of actor Davies with optional commentary

Released by: Warner Brothers
Region: 1
Rating: NR; some violence, I mean criminy, it’s about Manson
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Rent it if you’re into true crime.

[ad#longpost]Charles Manson (Davies) was a frustrated musician. He had a message that he wanted to get out to the people. He was well liked if considered a bit touched in the head. And he had a group of followers who would do anything he asked of them, including and especially brutally murder innocent people. This was all part of Manson’s plan to create “Helter Skelter,” a race war that would consume all.

First of all, confession time. I have not read the original book nor have I seen the original 1976 small screen adaptation. I do have some passing knowledge of Manson and his crimes, however. All of that to say if you want some well-written comparison between any of this stuff, feel free to flee now.

But really, part of the point of an adaptation is that you can’t rely on your audience to have sampled the source material. And in that respect, this film does well, laying out the events as they occurred, more or less. The trouble is, that’s all this film does. It seems a little obvious to say that the film feels like a true crime book, since it’s based on a true crime book, but…well, I think the description is apt. The feel of most true crime books is that they’re dry, and unless you come to them already interested in the crime at hand, there’s nothing really compelling presented.

That’s certainly the case here. I’m sure if you have read the book or seen the other version, then this iteration will be enough to keep you in front of your television screen. Gray decided to take the opposite side of the coin from the previous version and give some focus to the Family rather than just Bugliosi (here played by Kirby). Davies, from what I know about Manson, plays the hell out of the part. He manages to get across that Manson seems like a harmless loon only on the surface, but just underneath every part of you is screaming to get the hell away from him. That’s truly the high point of the film, but sadly it’s not enough, especially in something over two hours long, to keep those unfamiliar with the story involved.

Jeremy Davies stars in Helter Skelter
Jeremy Davies is Charles Manson

Not helping matters is DuVall, who just seems out of her depth playing a member of the Family who is fashioned into a heroine in this version. Also not helping things is how Gray wants to do too much: while it’s admirable that he wants to give us a glimpse into the lives of the victims, the film literally comes to a halt during these sequences. And some of them–the caretaker whose friend stopped by on exactly the wrong night to say howdy–wind up being confusing as hell, because you don’t know any of these secondary and tertiary characters enough to understand who’s doing what when and why. Also, a very unfortunate choice was his use of suddenly switching to negative in the very violent scenes, or slowing down people’s voices. He states that he did that to emphasize how weird stuff was…trouble is, stuff is weird enough as it unfolds on the screen. Throwing “tricks” like that in serve only to jolt the viewer out of the movie.

All of that having been said, the array of features is quite impressive for an extended TV movie like this one. There’s a commentary track from Gary and producer Wolper that starts off on a strong foot: they discuss how this new version came about, how the casting evolved, and how they accomplished what they did with such a limited budget. However, they spend a little too much time blowing smoke up the skirts of their cast, and there are a number of dead spaces. I can’t complain too much–it’s a long damn movie to talk through. But still.

Also are some additional scenes with commentary, but like most additional scenes on DVDs, you’re glad they’re there for posterity’s sake, but they add little else. An interesting bonus bit that overstays its welcome is the rehearsal tape of Davies working on his Manson. Apparently, Davies was up for the part in an indie film which never coagulated. However, his tape made its way around Hollywood and eventually landed him the Manson gig in this project. The footage goes for over fifteen minutes (and does come with optional commentary). While it’s interesting for a couple of minutes, it’s hard to sit through the whole thing, since it’s just him ranting in character…and, well, you just got a lot of that in the main feature.

Jeremy Davies rehearsing for Helter Skelter
Jeremy Davies as a ranting Charlie Manson

Bottom line is this: if you’re interested in true crime in general, the Manson murders or have a familiarity with the book or previous movie, then this is worth a rental. If you’re not as involved, then I would give this a pass. The features are average and Davies’ performance by itself, while impressive, is not enough to carry the disc.

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