Considering all the bad news coming from the Mideast in recent weeks, including the abuse scandal and the videotaped beheading of an American man by Islamic terrorists, it seems unlikely that viewers are in the mood for a bloody, gloomy network movie. But CBS has one anyway: a remake, in one night, of the two-part 1976 miniseries "Helter Skelter."
This horrific ordeal is a docudramatic account of the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings in which seven people were slain over two nights in Los Angeles in 1969, when terrorism was mainly the province of drug-crazed loonies. Why revisit this aberrant tragedy now? Because blood-and-guts still translate into ratings-and-profits. Besides, the unsavory story can be told with more explicit bloodshed than was possible on TV in 1976. Oh lucky us.
The film -- airing tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 9 -- has few distinguishing features besides the ramped-up graphic detail. One problem for writer-director John Gray: how to get some of that very explicit violence right up top, at the beginning of the movie, so restless viewers won't tune out while waiting for the Tate-LaBianca atrocities to occur.
Gray's solution was to open the film with an unrelated act of violence by Charles Manson, the psychopath who ordered the killings carried out. In a scene set at the home of a music teacher who somehow knows Manson, crazy Charlie takes out a sword and lops off the man's left ear. He threatens to cut off the other one, too, unless the teacher forks over credit cards and other valuables.
In fact, the first image on the screen is that of a bloodied face, which proves an apt icon, or maybe the ugly equivalent of Leo the Lion growling at the start of an MGM movie. The film runs wild with blood during the ensuing three hours (2 hours 15 minutes without the commercials). In progressive flashbacks, the murders are shown in more and more detail, implicitly promising viewers that if they stay tuned, they will see bloodshed on a Grand Guignol scale. It's a cynical approach, to say the least.
Master killer Manson is considered a plum role for a young actor because the character gets to run riot from one corner of the screen to the others. But lunatics are, in fact, probably the easiest people to play; all one has to do is go nuts -- not a stretch for most actors. Thus, it's a little surprising that Jeremy Davies as Manson remains stubbornly unimpressive and self-conscious. Manson supposedly has hypnotizing eyes and a spellbinding personality, but despite all the snarly, gnarly glaring that Davies does, and the goofy movements he makes with his hands, his always feels like an actor's performance, not a homicidal maniac's.
Maybe Davies was cast for his fingers, which are long and spindly and Rasputin-like. Or maybe those aren't real fingers but special effects. You never know.
Attractively freckled Clea DuVall is quite convincing, however, as Linda Kasabian, who is being indoctrinated into Manson's combination screwball cult and harem as the film begins. Her baby is taken away upon her arrival, as is her wallet, by a grinning hippie chick who tells her: "Charlie wants the kids raised by everybody, not just a mother or father" and "What's yours is ours and what's ours is yours."
DuVall wins one's sympathy early on because she expresses skepticism, if mild, about Manson and his methods. Perhaps the best scene in the film is the one in which Manson verbally baptizes her into the cult, whispering mystical mumbo jumbo and other gibberish that sound seductive to her and twittering his fingers in the air, partly as a prelude to sex. The camera pulls back and reveals that what had seemed an intimate scene is actually being played out in a room full of people, all bunked out wall-to-wall on the floor.
One of Manson's pathetic followers explains the meaning of "helter skelter," one of many phrases painted in blood at the scenes of their crimes. It's his code for a coming war that would be bigger than all previous wars put together. On the night of the murders that he supervises but doesn't directly participate in, Manson says, "Now is the time: helter skelter."
Although violence is depicted liberally and at length, scenes that are apparently supposed to be orgies look laughably tame. America, or American TV networks, persist in the notion that sex on the screen is potentially more harmful than graphic violence. The culture is corrupt, indeed, though not in the ways that maniacal Manson claims in his imbecilic soliloquies.
The 1976 "Helter Skelter" miniseries was neatly divided into the buildup to the murders followed, sort of like on "Law & Order," by the story of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's pursuit of Manson and his "family" all the way into the courtroom. But in the new version, Bugliosi enters the story much later, and he is meekly played by Bruno Kirby, who looks frightened instead of determined.
Among the gimmicks employed is reversing the film during violent moments so it looks like a photographic negative -- apparently to indicate somebody's state of mind but just calling attention to itself. It's a pity that in these bitter, harrowing and depressing times, CBS found it necessary to reawaken torturous memories that are just as well forgotten -- as forgotten as this movie will be by Monday morning.