These are most insightful documentaries about Charles Manson

26 November 2017 - 00:00 By Tymon Smith
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Steve Railsback as Manson in the 1976 TV film 'Helter Skelter'.
Steve Railsback as Manson in the 1976 TV film 'Helter Skelter'.
Image: Supplied

Charles Manson - the epitome of evil and of the insanity of white supremacy; the man who murdered the dream of the '60s in August 1969 when his followers, the "family," went on their killing spree - is no more.

One of the world's most famous cult leaders died last Sunday, a week after his 83rd birthday. While he never directly participated in the murders, he spent almost half a century in prison.

District attorney Vincent Bugliosi put him there after painting a picture of Manson as the leader of a conspiracy to try to unleash a race war in the US - Helter Skelter, the apocalypse he had divined in the lyrics of the Beatles' song.

Manson, who had spent most of his life in prison before he arrived on the summer-of-love scene in 1967, had always yearned to be famous. While Neil Young and Beach Boy Brian Wilson were impressed by his songwriting, it was through the Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders and the subsequent hugely publicised trial that Manson finally got what he wanted.

He became a divisive pop-culture figure who made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone and released albums of his music. He inspired covers by Guns 'N Roses and references in the work of Black Flag, The Ramones and Throbbing Gristle.

Helter Skelter, the 1974 book written by Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, racked up the most sales for a true crime book in history and inspired two lukewarm TV movie adaptations - but there has been no major movie about him.

There are plenty of YouTube documentaries and interview footage in which the increasingly irrelevant and insane Manson freaks out everyone from Diane Sawyer to Geraldo Rivera and Charlie Rose, reminding the viewer just why he and the family so captured the imaginations and fed the fears of America.

The extended footage from Sawyer's ABC film focusing on interviews with Manson family members Leslie van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel is particularly creepy, with Manson attempting to dominate and sexually intimidate the news anchor in spite of being thoroughly chained up.

Footage from Sawyer's piece is included in the 80-minute ABC documentary Truth and Lies: The Family Manson, which aired in March this year. It is available on YouTube and offers perhaps the best and least sensationalised overall account of Manson's life and times.

WATCH | Charles Manson and the followers who killed for him

As recently pointed out, arguably the most revealing and of-the-moment documentary on the subject is the 1973 cinéma vérité-style Manson. It features footage of Manson but is made up of interviews with members of the family who were not involved in the murders and spent the trial offering their support to the leader.

Available on YouTube, the film paints an eerily disturbing portrait of Manson's total control of the family, who run around naked near the Spahn Ranch, engage in seemingly care-free hippy pursuits like collecting garbage from restaurants to feed themselves, and spout the deranged gospel according to Charlie while caressing shotguns and making vests out of pieces of their hair.

The most revealing and of-the-moment documentary is the 1973 'Manson'

The hard-to-find, full two-hour 1976 television adaptation of Helter Skelter, often remembered by those who saw it at the time as a chilling portrait of evil bewitchment, is now laughably over-the-top and low on production values. The 2004 remake starring Jeremy Davies is not much better.

Until something else comes along there is finally the recent NBC series Aquarius, cancelled after two seasons, which starred David Duchovny as a fictional homicide detective who becomes suspicious of Manson and his followers two years before the murders. It featured an uneven but reasonably chilly performance by Gethin Anthony as the young, mercurial singer-songwriter in search of a record deal.

It was an up-and-down show that its creators claimed was not supposed to be a faithful account of the rise of the family. Despite its lack of focus it was perhaps the screen version that best encapsulated the paranoia that had begun to grip California residents.

A time about which Joan Didion, in her 1978 essay The White Album, said: "This mystical flirtation with the idea of 'sin' - this sense that it was possible to go 'too far', and that many people were doing it - was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969 ... The jitters were setting in."

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