Counting on blood and gore to score in sweeps

After success with 'Hitler,' CBS trots out Manson slayings -- again

Television: Review

May 16, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The networks would show Hitler practicing necrophilia in prime time if they thought it would win a night of sweeps programming.

-- Paul L. Klein, NBC's chief of programming during the '70s

CBS came close to proving Klein's claim last May when it aired its controversial two-part miniseries, Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Les Moonves, the network's flamboyant president, tried to spin the film as a sort of public service, a commitment on the part of CBS to help the world finally understand where Hitler went wrong. The project would have been laughable if it weren't so despicable.

Moonves, however, had the last laugh when the series earned a sweeps-winning, Sunday-night audience of 12.6 million viewers for the opening night of Hitler. Now CBS presents Helter Skelter, a three-hour movie about Charles Manson whose followers in 1969 brutally murdered seven people during a two-night spree in Los Angeles. Hitler practicing necrophilia could not have been any creepier than this gratuitous, gruesome, mind-numbing exercise in exploitation.

If you're wondering why Manson, why now? -- consider this: In 1976, CBS broadcast a two-night miniseries also titled Helter Skelter, based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney who prosecuted Manson. It was seen each night in some 35 million homes (one out of every two television sets in use during the show were tuned to CBS). Twenty-eight years later, it still ranks as the highest-rated, two-part miniseries ever.

Tonight's Helter Skelter is based on the same book and lists Bugliosi as one of the executive producers. Think of it as CBS and Bugliosi practicing literary necrophilia.

For its part, CBS attempts to differentiate between the two shows by explaining that the 1976 miniseries focused on the slayings and the trial of Manson. Tonight's film, CBS notes, seeks to explain "who Manson was, why he did what he did, and how this morally corrupt ex-con was able to persuade the members of his Family to commit such horrifying acts." In other words, this is another noble effort by CBS to help viewers understand the nature of evil.

Violent from the start

Tonight's film opens in 1969 in Benedict Canyon, outside Los Angeles, with a scene in which Manson (Jeremy Davies) hacks off a man's ear. Manson uses a bayonet to do the bloody deed, and it happens within the first minute of the film. (Linger a second too long on CBS after 60 Minutes tonight, and your children will witness the moment.)

Rather than being reduced to a flash of steel and lots of blood, the scene goes on -- and on. It is merely the overture for the three hours of gore and death that follow.

For the most part, the film is told from the viewpoint of Linda Kasabian (Clea DuVall), a young mother who appears at Manson's California ranch seeking a place to stay. Manson's group, whose members refer to it as "The Family," immediately separate Kasabian from her baby.

"Charlie wants kids raised by everybody," she is told. "That's how we get rid of the ego and disease parents put in their kids' heads."

Kasabian's initiation also includes lots of drugs and group sex. Overhead camera shots are used again and again to show the many forms of coupling among the young bodies in the communal sleeping room. Director John Gray creates a sense of skin-crawling tension by filming Manson and Kasabian in close-ups with everything else blacked out. As Manson circles Kasabian's body, touching her in various places, viewers can almost feel his breath. And all the while, instead of expressing love or desire, he is urgently describing his vision for a "better" world.

Eventually Kasabian is invited to partake in "creepy crawls" -- nocturnal trips to suburban homes to steal from and frighten their inhabitants. In August of 1969, she and other members of Manson's group visit a mansion rented by film director Roman Polanski -- and slaughter actress Sharon Tate, Polanksi's pregnant wife, along with four other adults who were living in or visiting the mansion. Polanski was in London making a movie.

The next night, Manson followers killed Leon LoBianca, a supermarket chain owner, and his wife, Rosemary. The killings became collectively known as the Tate / LoBianca murders.

Though present during both killing sprees, Kasabian is depicted as not having taken part -- maybe because she is the witness Bugliosi used to put Manson and several of his followers away for life. This is, after all, a docudrama that reaches for intensity instead of truth, relying on graphic moments -- such as one in which the dying Tate begs a Manson follower to cut the baby out of her belly -- to move viewers.

There's precious little to be learned from this blood-soaked, May-sweeps project.In fact, the deepest truth to be found in Helter Skelter is that the depressing observation made three decades ago by NBC's chief of progamming still is dead on.

Wasn't it just last January that Mel Karmazin, the president of Viacom, came before Congress in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl fiasco and promised that CBS would do its best never to debase or coarsen the culture? Moonves must have missed that memo from his boss.


What: Helter Skelter.

When: Tonight at 8.

Where: WJZ (Channel 13).

In brief: From Hitler to Manson, once again, CBS goes for the hate in the heat of May sweeps.

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