The Warner Archive September 28, 2018 DVD of the director's cut of the 2004 TV movie "Helter Skelter" does not quite put the viewer inside the head of cult leader/serial killer by proxy Charles Manson; it does provide good insight into the life of Manson and the members of his "family" at the time that his "children" kill pregnant actress Sharon Tate (a.k.a. Mrs. Roman Polanski), her house guests, and a couple of guys who stop by on the worst possible night.
The cred. of this equally entertaining and educational docudrama includes attorney/screenwriter Vincent Bugliosi basing the film on his insight as the real-life prosecutor in the case. Another notable aspect of "Helter" is that is offers the flip side perspective of the equally good film "Wolves at the Door." "Wolves", which is another (reviewed) member of the Archives catalog, largely is from the perspectives of the Manson Family victims.
Director John Gray ("The Ghost Whisperer") and Bugliosi start off strong with family members putting the fear of Charlie into someone whom the group concludes done them wrong, Manson (Jeremy Davies of "Lost") then shows up in a manner that suggests that Davies is basing his performance on Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." It is equally plausible that close Roman Polanski friend Nicholson bases his "Shining" performance on the rel-life Manson.
This opening confrontation in "Helter" establishes three key elements of the Manson story; Manson is violently psychotic, his "children" are fanatically devoted to him, and "Dad" is smart enough to leave the real dirty work to the kids.
The fun continues with seeing newly single mom/lost soul Linda Kasabian (Clea DuVall) get adopted and move to the western-style film lot that serves as the family home. Linda meeting future wannabe presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme (Mary Lynn Rajskub of "24) is one highlight. The minimal worldly goods of Kasabian quickly being absorbed into the Manson Family treasury reminds viewers of the modus operandi of communes/cults.
Exposition during this period includes depicting the mysterious charisma of Manson and his outlook on life. One can understand how young folks who feel unloved respond to the affection that Manson shows his offspring; it is equally predictable that the turmoil of the late '60s get them to buy into his belief that the titular race war will lead to black people dominating white people. Accepting his exit strategy of escaping into essentially a magical Sid and Marty Krofft land when the race war fully commences reflects that these disciples are enjoying the '60s too much.
The story take a more familiar turn when the friendship/collaboration between Manson and Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson goes south. Advanced-beginner Manson scholars know about this relationship and that Manson is a house guest of that teen idol until the drug use and other weirdness get to be too much even for Wilson. The events of "Helter" fill in the picture in manners that include showing the connection between that falling out and turning Chez Polanski into a murder house.
A particularly interesting aspect of the Beach Boys element is that we learn that music producer Terry Melcher plays a key role in the mayhem. A fun aside is that Melcher is the real-life son of Doris Day and the producer of her eponymous '60scom. A related bit of Hollywood history is that mismanagement by the then-husband of Day forces her to do the program. The final note is that all this reflects the que sera sera philosophy for which Day is well known.
The Tate killings and other felony-murders by family members in the same period receive surprisingly little screen time in "Helter."
The subsequent focus on the investigation of the aforementioned crimes (including the LaBianca murders) reflects "Helter" being the work of a prosecutor. Another strong reference point is that the military-style raids on Manson Family homesteads evoke thoughts of the more recent confrontation at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.
This all begins when common elements of the crimes cause light bulbs to belatedly go off in the heads of law-enforcement folks. This leads to the national obsession trials of Manson and his family. Manson insisting on defending himself will trigger memories for folks old enough to recall these proceedings.
Seeing how Bugliosi builds his cases is fascinating to both true-crime and television procedural fans. This includes get cooperation from Charles "Tex" Watson and other inner circle members. These sessions also provide a good narrative technique to provide a more detailed look at the commissions of the crimes. Learning more about the killing of Tate highlights her caring nature and the degree to which the Manson controls his followers.
Gray ending "Helter" with the standard "where are they now" inter-titles is predictable. The depth in terms of the included family members and level of detail regarding their fates goes well above and beyond the typical made-for-TV (or even theatrical) film.