The Tate-LaBianca murders, commonly called the Charles Manson murders, have inspired countless films, some direct and some indirectly based on those events of August 1969. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019) proved the continuing cinematic viability of those murders after 50 years.
The first film based on those events, shot practically while the blood was still fresh, is one of the most remarkable yet most obscure of such projects. Film Detective now offers a beautifully restored Blu-ray of Frank Howard’s The Other Side of Madness (1971), complete with interviews from producer Wade Williams on the incredible story of this audacity. The film is well done for what was essentially an amateur production, but hold that thought.
Williams states that it played in foreign countries like Italy, which is how his $90k investment broke even and showed up on the Southern drive-in circuit under the title The Helter Skelter Murders. Even in the era of the New Hollywood, this no-budget wonder may have disappointed audiences looking for exploitation, for it comes across as a highly competent combination of semi-documentary and experimental underground movie.
Williams is known primarily as a collector of low-budget science fiction and horror. His IMDB page states that he owns the largest independent library of science fiction films. He operates out of his home town of Kansas City, Missouri, and he reports that he and director-photographer-editor Howard were sitting around the swimming pool of Williams’ 55-room mansion as the daily papers and TV reports were full of the Manson trial.
While the trial was underway, they decided to film a semi-documentary there in Kansas City, inspired by court transcripts and news reports and populated by local hippies and actors. Williams was afraid of getting sued, so characters were left unnamed except for the wild-eyed, bearded “Charlie” (John David). Even Sharon Tate was identified only as The Starlet (Debbie Duff).
In the tradition of exploitation movies, it opens and closes with lugubrious and self-justifying “square-up” crawls. The opening paragraphs states: “In the late summer of 1969 an unknown band of hippie-styled characters committed the most bizarre crimes in history” and then goes on to say the film is based on public records and isn’t trying to defame anyone.
The closing crawl spells out a time-honored moral: “This picture is a grim warning. The use of drugs must be rigidly controlled if there is to be any future for our society–or for our country itself.” There you go, it’s Reefer Madness all over again, but the meat of the picture is more ambitious, disturbing, and artful.
The trial is the unifying device for a series of flashback movements. The witnesses don’t say anything in particular but are used as the excuse to present, first, a documentary of a local hippie concert in some kind of quarry, where lots of pot is smoked and people skinny-dip. The witness speaks of “getting it on” and “freaking everyone out”. Even for 1971, this is frank material, but it’s more anthropological than leering and essentially avoids frontal nudity.
Next, we have a demure sexual interlude between a couple in a barn to imply free love, while the witness says something about how women are expected to be available for any man and implies Charlie had a harem. This is handled kind of like an Ingmar Bergman movie. Next comes a great expressive gesture. A scene of The Starlet descending stairs in a costume picture transitions to gorgeous Technicolor, as per Studio Hollywood’s convention that black and white was for reality, color was for fantasy.
Next comes a fantasy illustrating fears of “race war”, what Manson meant by “helter-skelter”. We see guys dressed like the Black Panthers breaking into a store and the home of a dumpy white lady. They knock her down and steal her cockatoo!
It’s worth noting that 1971 is the same year Barbara Streisand and director Irvin Kershner shot Up the Sandbox, which contains a scene where her character fantasizes joining similarly garbed black terrorists to blow up the Statue of Liberty. It’s also the year Stanley Kubrick played on fears of break-ins by violent, disrespectful youth in A Clockwork Orange, though without the racial angle.
Now that we’re rolling, 1971 gave a long list of “hell in a handbasket” movies about cities and civilization falling apart. Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders and Arthur Hiller and Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital were two mordantly brilliant examples. One year earlier, Hiller and Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners (1970) provided an odyssey of urban hell, ending on a hijacking gag that got cut from its network TV showing.
1971 is also the year Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry drew upon the real-life Zodiac Killer, while offering the belligerent solution that “the system” was too soft on punks, what with red tape and civil rights and all. It’s among the era’s paradoxical movies, like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970), that somehow channel a rebellious anti-authoritarian vibe within an authoritarian structure. Several war and police films were mastering this ambiguity. Finally, it’s the year of two milestones kicking off the “blaxploitation” trend. Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, advertised proudly as “Rated X by an all-white jury”, channeled black rage so successfully as to be endorsed by the Black Panthers, while Gordon Parks’ Shaft made a star of Richard Roundtree.
The point of this laundry list is to show that the brief glimpse of pseudo-Panthers in The Other Side of Madness ties in comfortably with what was blowin’ in the wind, and that Hollywood’s big studios were also tapping this on-the-fly indie production’s other elements of cultural fear and ennui.
The film’s major setpiece is the re-enactment of the Tate murders, based carefully on court details and filmed in Williams’ living room, with exteriors at his parents’ house. This is literally the headline sequence and it’s very well done. Brian Klinkett plays the lead killer as a cold, affectless machine abetted by equally glaring and vivid female killers played by Erica Bigelow, Paula Shannon, and Linda Van Campernolle. As per testimony, Charlie is nowhere near but linked spiritually by voiceover.
Although shot mostly in Kansas City, including inside the local courthouse, Williams and Howard made a trip to Los Angeles for establishing shots. They filmed documentary scenes at the Spahn Ranch, with actual “Manson Family” members participating on camera with a bunch of horses, not long before the place burned down in a 1970 fire. We see what looks like distant footage of elderly Mr. Spahn walking towards a truck. We also travel the actual drive to the Tate house.
The most incredible element is the use of a song recorded and sung by Manson, “Mechanical Man”, which sounds like a Captain Beefheart-ish bit of psychedelia. According to Williams, to raise funds for his defense, Manson recorded two songs and sold them to Williams for $1,500, a deal brokered by Manson’s attorney. A CD replica is included with the Blu-ray. In other words, Manson himself agreed, at least indirectly, to participate in the film. The relations between truth and fiction become head-spinning.
Credit is due to Howard’s unified vision, as expressed in his sharp black and white photography, often with wide-angle distortion for a “helter-skelter” look, his combination of documentary with expressionism, and an editing style that feels tightly controlled yet freestyle and improvisational. Like Sergei Eisenstein, he also gets creditable performances from mostly silent performers, mainly by casting according to facial typology. He even does some Eisensteinian symbolic associative editing, as when a shot of a naked man crawling along a hill cuts to a dog doing the same.
As a “true crime” film, Howard’s movie compares well with two contemporary examples: Leonard Kastle’s Massachusetts-filmedThe Honeymoon Killers (1970) and Alan Ormsby’s Ontario-shot Deranged (1974). Those films are masterpieces and I won’t apply that term to Howard’s film, but it’s surprisingly good in terms of what it’s trying to do and as a time capsule of fears, attitudes, and film styles, and it takes far fewer liberties with its inspiration. Several shots are straight-up documentary, like people waiting outside the L.A. courtroom, and a man reading a paper with the headline ARMS TO EGYPT about Soviet funding. Helter-skelter indeed.
The most famous film about Manson during this era was Tom Gries’ highly-rated two-part TV movie Helter Skelter (1976), based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s bestselling 1974 book of the same title. It’s a meticulous procedural and courtroom docudrama that, among other things, shows how inept the police investigations were while valorizing Bugliosi’s cleverness. That effort received fame and cultural imprimatur, whereas Williams states he never made a profit from his grungy independent drive-in picture, which was reviled and forgotten. At the time of this review, it didn’t yet have an entry on Wikipedia and isn’t mentioned on their Manson page.
So here’s an example of the return of the repressed, and it looks and sounds amazingly crisp on Blu-ray. Even with its fanciful digressions and avoidance of names, it’s more accurate and chilling than some examples that did retain the names.