I know what you're probably thinking: Just what the world needs -- another low-budget excursion into the wicked world of Charlie Manson and his pack of creepy crawler flunkies. But this flick is a real find for true crime fans, because though most of the facts of the case are common knowledge nowadays, when this film was first released back in 1971 (right on the heels of the real thing), it must've been a pisser. Produced by Wade Williams, who sat in on the Los Angeles Manson trial and later interviewed Charlie in jail, this is a perverse little work, both beautifully filmed and constructed. Shot in stark black-and-white in order to give the proceedings an almost documentary veneer, the pic almost attains the type of unflinching realism found in gems like THE HONEYMOON KILLERS and IN COLD BLOOD. And it's all the more chilling due to its unhysterical, matter-of-fact tone and minimalistic use of soundtrack music. The entire project could've easily been lensed for sheer exploitation value (and admittedly, it works on that level), but director Frank Howard strives for much more -- utilizing an imaginative structure of flashbacks, while sticking almost verbatim to the facts and words given as courtroom testimony. The entire twisted cast of characters is here, and we're introduced to Charlie's "Family" from the inside out, using minimal dialogue (thank goodness, since the actors are dreadful) while allowing the images to tell the story of alienated, bored youth finding solace at Charlie's ranch (while ingesting enough acid to turn their brainpans into tapioca pudding). We witness their pot smoking, amyl popping, and general hippie debauchery, intercut with testimony from the murder trial years later. And the film takes on an almost surreal quality by the midpoint. When (the never actually named) Sharon Tate takes center stage, the film jarringly shifts into color for a clip from her acting career. And when Charlie mentions Helter Skelter, the audience is treated to a mini-dramatization of Manson's vision of the future -- with armed black militants gunning down every whitey in sight and overrunning suburbia. Wow!! Director Howard even incorporates Manson's musical composition, "Mechanical Man", sung by Charlie himself. And little is left to the imagination when it comes down to the murder reenactment. It's all captured without too much gratuitous gore, but the attention to the smallest details is so precise that it becomes both ghoulish and engrossing. Strange how this particular film (under its OTHER SIDE title) quickly disappeared, but six years later the made-for-TV movie HELTER SKELTER scored an immense 36.5 share (which led to this film's re-christened re-release as THE HELTER SKELTER MURDERS). I guess America needed a little more time before they were able to stomach the truth, and face the type of nightmare this warped country can breed. Though by no means a perfect film, it is a powerful one, which takes off in unexpected directions and never resorts to heavy handed moralizing.
© 1992 by Steven Puchalski.