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Customer Review

91 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Chilling True-Crime Classic! First-Class DVD!, April 21, 2004
This review is from: Helter Skelter (DVD)
1976's "Helter Skelter" is an intense and quite suspenseful TV movie, starring Steve Railsback, who is so good as Charles Manson, it's rather eerie. The film also stars George DiCenzo, as Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. The tele-film is based on Mr. Bugliosi's best-selling true-crime novel of the same title.

The film is told in semi-documentary style (with DiCenzo doubling as narrator throughout the movie). It begins with a very spine-chilling scene in the early-morning hours of August 9, 1969, in Los Angeles, California. We hear multiple gunshots from a distance. Gunshots which emanated from nearby 10050 Cielo Drive, the home of movie director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate.

The gunshots were fired by a member of Charles Manson's so-called "Family". And so began one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of crime -- a senseless massacre, claiming the lives of seven innocent people, that became commonly known as the "Tate/LaBianca Murders".

Manson's "zombie" killers racked up five murders at the Tate residence, and the next night went out and killed two more people they had never met, Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca, at 3301 Waverly Drive, in another part of Los Angeles (Los Feliz).

(In my own view, Manson and his team of brainwashed murderers should *really* have been charged with EIGHT killings in August 1969. Number eight being the unborn child of Sharon Tate.)

The film recreates the discovery of the two grisly murder scenes with nerve-wracking effectiveness, but without showing too much gore, which is all the better (as well as tasteful). But the fact that this was a 1976 made-for-TV feature no doubt limited the filmmakers with regard to showing material of an overly-graphic nature.

The story of the brutal killings and the lengthy court trial that followed is detailed very well in this rarely-seen, full-length (184-minute) DVD version of "Helter Skelter". The previous video (VHS) release of the film only ran a paltry 119 minutes, with (obviously) many scenes cut from the original print.

The movie was originally shown as a "2-Parter" on network television, with a total running time of 194 minutes (10 minutes longer than what we get on this DVD). But, despite missing ten minutes, we're not really losing any relative scenes or information. Because the ten minutes that are missing are simply "recap" scenes that were used for the network telecast in order to re-acquaint viewers with the storyline and previous "Part 1" scenes. Plus, also trimmed from the DVD version is a needless "end credits from Part 1" sequence. Therefore, this 184-minute version of the film *is*, in effect, the "complete" film (when taken in the context of a "one-part" motion picture, rather than a two-parter).

The icing on this movie's cake is the brilliant and highly-effective music score by Billy Goldenberg. Goldenberg's unsettling score evokes a feeling of uneasiness and is downright scary in many instances during the film.

Mr. Goldenberg was one busy music composer in the 1970s. He wrote musical themes to many TV shows during that era -- including: "Rhoda", "Night Gallery", "Banacek", "Kojak", "Harry O", and lots of others.

The DVD's aspect ratio is Full-Frame (1.33:1), as originally shown on TV. Video quality on this disc looks very sharp and clear. I am extremely pleased with the picture quality. There's an occasional blemish, artifact, or dust speckle, but not very many. Certainly not enough to create a distraction. In fact, even the nighttime images in the film (which can often look "grainy" on an older movie) exhibit excellent clarity here, with very little grain visible.

I've found that another good "test" of a DVD's picture quality (that's worked well for me) is the "Freeze Frame Test". Try "freezing" any image on the DVD. Does the stilled picture become blurry, distorted-looking, and fuzzy? If it can't be "frozen" without blurring (or minimal blurring), then I'd give that DVD video transfer a lower mark on the old "PQ Scorecard" than a more solid transfer where the picture can be paused and frozen in near-perfect clarity. "Helter Skelter", in my view, passes the "Freeze Test" very nicely. Non-moving images on screen can be paused with little or no blurriness resulting.

In short, this DVD offers up a very good Digital transfer for a TV-Movie made in 1976.

This snazzy-looking DVD version of "Helter Skelter" makes my ultra-poor, third-generation VHS copy of the film look mighty crummy indeed! Needless to say, that VHS video is now destined for the scrap pile.

The soundtrack offered up here is a 1.0 Dolby Digital Mono track; and it's quite adequate (although a small amount of "ghosting" is evident during some parts of the film). Mr. Goldenberg's shiver-inducing musical score comes through just fine via this mono presentation. And all dialogue sounds distinct, clear, and is easily understood.

Extra Features .... There are none (unless you want to count subtitles, which are included -- in English, French, and Spanish). But this lack of extras doesn't disappoint me greatly. Just getting this excellent TV film in top-quality Digital form on DVD is enough for me. (Although I would have *loved* a commentary by the real-life Manson prosecutor, Vince Bugliosi. But I figured that was too much to hope for. And it was.)

Menus .... The menus for "Helter Skelter" are "static" (non-animated) ones, with the Main Menu being accompanied by a variation of the eerie music score. Unfortunately, this is one of those discs where the movie begins playing all by itself after the Main Menu has been on screen for 30 seconds (which is common, it seems, with a lot of Warner Bros. DVDs).

If you're a fan of "true crime" tales, then this DVD should definitely find its way into your Digital Library. Part documentary, part thriller, part drama, part horror film, and ALL true -- "Helter Skelter" (1976) is a true nail-biter.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 4, 2010 6:03:40 PM PST
D. Keckler says:
One commentator states this DVD was censored Do you feel that it is or is it just a few
curse words that really aren't all that important Was any of the murder scenes cut too much?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 5, 2010 9:48:42 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 5, 2010 9:50:18 AM PST
There might be a few "dubs" to replace some dialogue, but I can tell you one thing for certain -- profanity such as the words "sh**" and the F word are certainly not in the original screenplay of this TELEVISION mini-series. No way they could be. Those two words would never have gotten by the TV network censors (esp. circa 1976).

And this is a TV mini-series, not a theatrical release.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 1, 2012 12:58:21 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 1, 2012 1:36:00 AM PDT
MP says:
Very True! Everything that the top positive ratings have mentioned about this film is so very true. One of the scariest of the 1970s (aside from the movies " Who is the Black Dahlia?" and " Guilty or Innocent: The Sam Shepard Murder Case" and this is only a shy few.

This was a very eerie movie for the 1970s. There was a warning of watching this TV movie with out a parent or guardian, because I definately watched this movie with my mom and none of us were not the same since. I mean, the scenes are accurate and Steve Railsback is like Manson's evil twin in this one. This is a movie that should not be remade (as it was and was very poorly done).

This is the only Helter Skelter to own. It is as close to the book as you will get and that is as close as any of you will ever want to get. There was never a theatrically released version. What many of the younger viewers must understand is this was how so very good true story television was made. It was never as cheap looking as what you are watching today.

Films based on True Stories or Best-Selling Novels were taken very, very seriously and the directors graduated toward directing major films after their meticulous work on major mini-series such as this one and mostly all of them made between 1970-1995. After that, this art was dwindling because cable was becoming more and more prominent in American culture.

When Helter Skelter aired in 1976, it was a film where everyone in America spoke about the next day and shared the experience. America only had 4 top stations and channels of that time and this was a major deal when it aired. It scared the potty out of all of us. EVERYONE was talking about it and everyone watched it from coast to coast.

It was like watching a theatrical film at home with everyone watching it at the same time. These were the days that I truly appreaciated as TV films HAD to be top-notch and no chickening out. In those days, the attitude was, if you are going to direct someting, you had better direct it well or it was your career and reputation.

There was a three way (ABC, CBS & NBC) competition and very little junk was produced when it came to such competition. I remembered that it aired on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and it aired for two night and every one in our neighborhood was stone silent...not a peep was made while this movie aired on CBS from 8pm-10pm.

CBS even took the re-runs very seriously, Everything was a production made just for the audience and there were very few commericals to interrupt a national event like this. Mini-Series were like the Olympics at that time. It was a tight as a docu-drama (it wasn't made to please folks, the director and producers were very loyal as much as they could possibly be to the Vincent Bugliosi Best- Seller. He was the man of the year for the chilling release of this novel and this version and another version called "The Family" which also came out in early 1970s were the alpha and omega on Charles Manson. That is why I cannot buy the new generation acting as if they really knew something about this case. They never lived through the tension and the fear which permeated a culture and it really wasn't taken lightly at all. This is what also made more American lock their doors (and not pretend --as today, to be so naive about leaving doors opened again---which is just suicide to do, period in this day and age).

Crime was taken very seriously in that era. Crime was not aired for mere entertainment to become elated at the death of another. Sure they had this in your weekly series, but when it came to a True Crime, it was something we collectively cared about.

It wasn't something that folks designed shirts over. Manson was a scab upon all of society and so I know that for a fact that he was NEVER a folk hero to ANY between the decades of 1960, 70s, or 80s. It wasn't until the end of the 1990s that the new freak wave of people came to "relate" to this criminal.

This was a time when it was a high scarlet shame to be a criminal (unlike today, where being a criminal gets you an internet fan base with pen pals and e-marriages---no way)...a person doing that in THAT era would not have only been considered to be committed, but would have been excused out of the general social community.

Remember, this crime occurred in 1969 ---World War II was only over 20 years old and it took a nation a very long time to get past that and Viet Nam. The 1960s was an extremely violent time and a boldly violent time and Americans were still very sensitve and disgusted by this. People were not "numbed" by the violence, even at that point in time.

As a country, we were very sensitive by such a crime or any crime like it. It demonstrated that any one even taking sides on loving this monster WAS a monster. It was a very serious time in history and is worth purchasing this film to appreciate just why. Perhaps, we will return to a way that we all ought to ex-communicate folks who fall in love with scum-bags like Manson.

It was an embarrassment to be a criminal and the subject was hands off and that you only met them through films such as this. Ever!

It really riled a great many people to fear because this crime had only occurred about 6 years (give or take) to when it was aired. The murderers were not found and the trial did not take place until 1970-1971 or so and it took CBS (Lorimar) the time to cast the perfect cast for this film. This was a big deal and this is a movie to take seriously (as the newer generation has made this creep their folk hero across the internet). Manson was NO one's hero at that time. ALL of America was frightened of this family and this family (the same year of release) attempted to assassinate President Ford.

This group did not only murder film stars and wealthy people, they murdered the every day person who worked hard or who could be your friend or neighbor. Every actor in this version is so very well cast, that as you are watching it you will feel as if you were watching the real thing.

It is very well done. Many of the actors were rarely used again after this movie aired , except, for Alan Oppenheimer. Steve Railsback did not act until the early 1980s because of his very rich and unforgettable performance.

He did not simply "act" like Manson, Railsback BECAME Manson. Railsback is THAT chilling and just that good and there is just no other performance like it or since, including the women who followed him as they captured the essence of that very mentality of having such a darkness within them (even after having been born from upper middle class families).

There is no number one person on this subject except for Bugliosi. He tried the case and won an impossible case. There is much more to what "Helter Skelter" meant about white against blacks. It was to discredit an entire era and was spoken in very hushed circles to have been developed by the same grouping of individuals who were responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King and many others, including John Lennon.

There were a LOT of very angry conservatives who were very much whispered as strategizing such a national diversion for the changes being made all over the country.

This was not about some "cheap talk of conspiracy" , this was about a complete redirection of where they felt the country was going---remember, this was from articles, books, and conversations exchanged during that era (so no political squabbling please). I am only illustrating a time in which this movie was produced without the need to purely make money from advertising, but it was more like a public warning and message that had to be told at that time.

Manson had about over 15-20 murders --unsolved--suspected against him and his followers. This man hates women and hated any one who succeeded in what he wanted for himself. He changed the counter culture permanently and hippies and love children were no longer trusted as a result. Security for practically everyone tightened and gun shops had to reorder bullets to every gun type.

The Manson family even frightened Lee Marvin and he was a masculine type movie star of the genre who often starred in very violent films. This TV movie was even showing too much at that time.

It is a piece of history in itself to own and well worth it's price for the DVD. It is even scary to watch at night even in this present time. The crime happened within the decade of the release, so as I mentioned, it really did not happen that far from the time of the actual crime and so when it was release for television it was relatively fresh in the public's mind. It wasn't only a "California" thing, it was a national horror story.

Posted on Aug 1, 2012 1:49:19 AM PDT
MP says:
David, I love that portrait of Kennedy as your upload! How fitting and what an excellent review! Read my response to your commentary!. You'll find that we share similiarities to the experience!
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