Published Feb 19, 2021Six-part docuseries Helter Skelter: An American Myth is as thorough a recounting of the Manson Family murders as you're likely to find on TV. But, 50-plus years after the murders — and nearly four years since Charles Manson himself died in jail — does it peel back any new layers to the story?
Not really, which isn't totally to its detriment. After dozens of books, articles and movies on the Manson Family, it's likely we've learned all we'll ever know. The show's subtitle is not hyperbolic — there's a reason people keep coming back to this particular story decades later, not the least of which is Quentin Tarantino's alternative fairytale version of events.
With that in mind, director Leslie Chilcott presents an exhaustive treatment of the story. The first episodes focus on the victims before delving into Manson's life story, involving a West Virginia childhood beset by physical and sexual abuse. The latter episodes delve into the specifics of Manson's California trial. There's also plenty of scene-setting around the murders themselves ('60s upheaval, those damn hippies, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy).
Most important to the series is that Chilcott never tries to justify Manson's evil actions; what she does instead is suggest how his life may have ended up the way it did. At the same time, the series never lands on a definitive answer to that question, probably because his evil was unfathomable. Which itself might be why people are compelled to the story of these murders?
It does falter significantly, though, in its insistence on using crime scene images from the Tate-LaBianca murders, along with narration of Tate's supposed last words. The series mostly manages not to tip over into exploitation, which would be really easy with as salacious a figure as Manson, but it fails here.
Chilcott is able to assemble a variety of interviews with journalists and prosecutors involved in the trial as well as three Family members (Dianne Lake, Catherine Share and Stephanie Schram) and combine them with archival footage, court illustrations and recreations. Despite the lack of new revelations, it's all generally compelling and watchable. (Hollywood Suite)