Once Upon a Time on Cielo Drive: Manson, Madness and Movies

July 15, 2019
As we count down the days until the 50th anniversary of the horrific Manson Family killings, and the cinema release of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a week later, John Harrison takes a look back at the 5 most intriguing Manson madness depictions on screen.

While the man-monster himself finally met his maker in November of 2017 (his life extended by over forty years after his initial death sentence was overturned in 1972), there remains a lingering sense of palpable terror and fascination for the dark enigma that was Charles Manson, and the indelible imprint of fear which he left in his wake after orchestrating the vicious murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others over the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969.

The brutal slaying of a beautiful, promising young starlet rocked and terrified Hollywood to its core. The fact that Tate was pregnant at the time of her murder gave the crime an even greater sense of tragedy and sadness, while her marriage to filmmaker Roman Polanski, director of the then-recent controversial horror thriller Rosemary’s Baby (1968), helped give rise to rumours of satanic influences in the killing spree (as did the cryptic messages of “Death to Pigs”, “Rise”, “Healter Skelter” [sic] and other slogans written on the crime scene walls in the victims’ blood). When an ex-con cult leader and his band of hoped-up young dropouts, many of them female, were later revealed to be the ones behind the killings, the story took on a whole new level of crazy.

With the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson Family killings fast approaching, the horrific event will soon be re-enacted on the big screen in what is sure to be a highly confronting and stylised way, with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic adventure in machismo, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While the Manson element is rumoured to be only one smaller part of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s multi-layered storyline, its arrival presents an opportune time to look back at a handful of the best depictions of Manson madness on screen to date.


My own first exposure to Charles Manson was, appropriately enough, a cinematic one, and came via the screening of the two-part telemovie Helter Skelter, which I first saw at the age of thirteen, probably the perfect age for the film and its story to have maximum impact on my impressionable mind. In the lead-up to the broadcast, I started learning a few things about Manson and the murders, from TV reports and newspaper articles hyping the mini-series, as well as from exaggerated and misinformed schoolyard chatter. But you didn’t need to exaggerate anything in this case – the crime and the facts surrounding it, not to mention the news footage and images of Manson and his perpetrators, spoke for themselves. So, by the time Helter Skelter aired in Australia, I was primed and already terrified out of my wits. After the first part of the telemovie had aired, I slept with the bedroom door opened and the hallway light turned on, for the first time in years. Of course, I also couldn’t wait for the second part to air the following night.

Directed by Tom Gries and adapted from the bestselling book co-authored by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter is told primarily through Bugliosi’s eyes, so it’s a one-sided, though at times, effectively harrowing re-enactment of the Manson story from the prosecutor’s point of view, and boasts a compelling performance by Steve Railsback as Charlie, who plays the character with a refreshing degree of subtlety, rather than opting for an over-the-top display. Though Railsback’s voice doesn’t have the same degree of menace or madness to it as Manson’s, where he comes alive is in the craziness lurking in his eyes and the facade of his welcoming smile. What makes Railsback’s performance even more of an achievement is that it was accomplished at a time when Manson himself was still keeping himself mostly hidden away behind bars, and there wasn’t the abundance of videotapes of subsequent parole hearings and television interviews to reference and draw upon, which actors who have played the role since have had at their disposal.

Railsback’s performance is the obvious lynchpin which Helter Skelter hangs on, but he is almost matched by George DiCenzo, who puts in a much more restrained but no less authoritative turn as Vincent Bugliosi, though his voice is unusually dubbed in a few scenes, making his onscreen dialogue sound more like voice-over narration. Fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) will also enjoy seeing Marilyn Burns (who played Sally Hardesty in Tobe Hooper’s terror classic) as Linda Kasabian, the Manson girl who later turned state witness, while Nancy Wolfe as Susan Atkins has some moments where she conveys a genuine sense of psychopathic menace, particularly in the scenes where she confesses her crimes to cellmate Ronnie Howard (Sondra Blake). The film has a slightly grimier look to it than many other American telemovies at the time, including the use of the ‘N’ word, and it’s one of the most authentic looking of all the commercial Manson movies, if only by design of it being made so close to when the events occurred, so many of the fashions, cars and interior designs still have that late-sixties hangover to them.

Unable to secure permission to use The Beatles’ original music in Helter Skelter, a jobbing LA band called Silverspoon (whose members included the son of director Gries) was brought in to record four cover tunes: “Helter Skelter”, “Piggies”, “Revolution 1” and “Long, Long, Long”.  It’s a pity the original recordings weren’t able to be used to preserve authenticity, but the covers serve their purpose well enough (though Silverspoon’s take on Piggies, played over a sequence where County Sheriff authorities raid Spahn Ranch, is pretty awful).

After its initial American television broadcast, Helter Skelter was subsequently edited down (and spiced up with additional nudity and violence) for overseas theatrical release. Another TV adaptation was produced in 2004, directed by John Gray and starring Jeremy Davies in a committed and immersive performance as Manson.


Helter Skelter wasn’t the first film to tell the Manson story. That honour belongs to Frank Howard’s low-budget wonder The Other Side of Madness (1971), which is perhaps better known under its 1976 re-release title of The Helter Skelter Murders. While many people are quick to dismiss Howard’s film, I’ve always found it incredibly fascinating. The seedy black & white photography, so at odds with its late-sixties setting, gives it a surreal cinema verite feel, and the long passages devoid of any dialogue or music also seem quite experimental in nature (as does the inclusion of a brief colour sequence, depicting the Sharon Tate character on the set of one of her films). The film plays around with some of the facts, but the murders which took place on Cielo Drive are depicted accurately and harrowingly, and Manson himself is portrayed as a very ethereal and almost supernatural character, saying little and communicating primarily though hypnotic eyes (much like he was being portrayed in the press at the time). A spiel before the end credits seems to place the entire blame for the tragic events on the easy availability of illicit drugs.

The mystique of The Other Side of Madness is compounded by the fact that the director and virtually the entire cast seem to have dropped off the face of the earth after its release. The soundtrack features an effective mix of fuzz guitar rock, cheesy lounge music and even an original Charles Manson recording (“Mechanical Man”). It’s not only a great piece of grimy exploitation cinema but an important documentation of an early take on the Manson mythos, when it was all still so fresh in everybody’s minds. Produced by Wade Williams, the film went into production not long after the murders had occurred, and was completed while Manson and his co-accused were still on trial, resulting in none of the perpetrators being named (though the leader is referred to as Charlie, and actor Brian Klinknett bears a strong physical resemblance to Manson, the characters are listed in the credits only as ‘The Killers’ and ‘Their Victims’). The opening scroll of the film also avoids any specific names, simply stating: “In the late summer of 1969 an unknown band of hippie-styled characters committed the most bizarre crimes in history”.

MANSON (1972)

There have probably been more documentaries produced about Charles Manson than any other modern true crime event, save for September 11 and JFK. Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category (it lost out to the evangelical expose Marjoe), and banned from screening in California for many years, Manson provides a chilling insight into the mindset of Charles Manson and, more particularly, his followers, most of whom were still in the grip of a fierce loyalty towards their leader.

Co-directed by Robert Hendrickson & Laurence Merrick and filmed when Manson and the convicted Tate-LaBianca slayers were still languishing on Death Row, Manson captures the climate of the times, when the killings were still fresh in the public’s mind, and Manson himself was already being looked upon by many as a counter-culture anti-hero. It makes for evocative and unsettling viewing, highlighted by footage of Manson girls Sandra Goode and Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme holed-up in a shack, brandishing firearms and threatening to kill anybody who gets in their way. Laurence Merrick was murdered in Hollywood in 1977, in a strange case which some theorists tied to vengeful Manson extremists, before a troubled student at Merrick’s Academy of Dramatic Arts confessed to the murder four years later. Robert Hendrickson remained fiercely protective of his documentary right up until his death in 2016, actively chasing down anyone who tried to sell or screen unauthorised copies.


Thanks to the lurid sensationalism of the case, it didn’t take long for the low-budget exploitation and horror filmmakers to start injecting overt Manson-esque elements to their drive-in and grindhouse fodder. In 1971, producer Jerry Gross charmed audiences with his memorably titled double-feature of I Eat Your Skin and I Drink Your Blood. While I Eat Your Skin was an old 1964 Del Tenny film called Voodoo Island Bloodbath that Gross had bought and re-titled, I Drink Your Blood was a new film that he had produced alongside director/screenwriter David Durston.

An incredibly seedy piece of work, I Drink Your Blood casts muscular Indian actor and dancer Bhaskar (aka Bhaskar Roy Chowhury) as Horace Bones, a Manson-like guru to a group of sorry satanic hippies calling themselves SADOS (the Sons and Daughters of Satan). When their van breaks down on the outskirts of a small town, they decide to amuse themselves by tormenting the locals, including a teenage girl and her grandfather (whom they force-feed LSD, sending poor grandpa on a wild senior’s trip). Angered by their behaviour, the girl’s bratty kid brother decides to get even by selling the hippie cult a tray of meat pies which he has injected with blood from a rabid dog that he has shot dead out in the woods. The Sons and Daughters of Satan soon begin to foam at the mouth and turn on each other, committing a ritualistic killing and dismemberment of one of their own, while turned-on hippie chick Sylvia (Iris Brooks) spreads her favours, along with her infection, to a group of rowdy construction workers at a nearby quarry. It all climaxes in an orgy of violence, as both hippies and quarry workers run riot over the countryside, brutally killing and chopping up anyone who gets in their way.

Filmed in Sharon Springs, NY (a once-popular summer spa town that had fallen on hard times and was virtually deserted by 1970), I Drink Your Blood certainly has a sparse desolation to it, which helps add to its uneasy atmosphere. While David Durston’s direction is rather flat, he definitely knows how to exploit a headline and turn a stomach – the way he lingers on close-up shots of the hippies noisily slurping down their infected meat pies is sure to spoil your appetite. Of the film’s cast, Bhaskar is certainly the standout as Horace, with his black vest and long locks falling down over his strong, toned frame, he brings a lot of charisma to his role, spouting classic lines of quotable dialogue, including this gem from the film’s opening satanic ritual sequence: “Let it be known, brothers and sisters, that Satan was an acid-head. Drink from his cup. Pledge yourselves, and together we’ll all freak out!”


By the mid-1980s, Manson had started gaining a new-found infamy, becoming almost something of a cult anti-hero to certain factions of the pre-grunge youth culture, many of whom had not even been born when the crimes were committed, and saw in Manson some misguided sense of rebellion or injustice. Notorious Hollywood glam rockers Mötley Crüe played up their public fascination with the dark side of Los Angeles by recording a cover of “Helter Skelter” for their Shout at the Devil LP in 1983. “Charlie Don’t Surf” t-shirts became a controversial piece of fashion wear, and Guns N’ Roses attracted criticism for recording a version of Manson’s “Look at Your Game, Girl” for their 1993 covers album, The Spaghetti Incident? Combined with the increasing number of new documentaries on the subject that were cropping up on cable television networks, it seemed like the time was right for another cinematic take on Manson, one that wouldn’t be restricted by the limits imposed by television or studio interference. After the underground film festival and fanzine acclaim which accompanied the release of Ohio-born filmmaker Jim Van Bebber’s powerful low-budget urban gang drama Deadbeat at Dawn (1988), many people eagerly awaited his follow-up feature, Charlie’s Family, the young auteur’s take on the Manson myth, and its continued influence on certain disassociated elements of modern society.

While Van Bebber’s screenplay for Charlie’s Family was published in trade paperback form in 1998, it would ultimately take a further five years before the film would finally be completed and see limited theatrical screenings and a subsequent home video release. Given the simpler and rather uninspired (but more publicly recognisable) retitle of The Manson Family, the film ultimately proved to be a little uneven and with a bit less frisson than Deadbeat at Dawn, but there is still a whole lot to admire about it, and Van Bebber provides a unique and provocative eye through which to penetrate and interpret the Manson mystique. Technically, the film has an impressive experimental edge, some of the photography by Mike King really capturing the sense of a late-1960s 8mm home movie, and utilises a lot of the camera tricks that filmmakers were using at the time when trying to document or simulate the counterculture life, such as fish-eye lenses. Unfortunately, while Marcelo Games certainly makes a good Manson visually, he seems to play him more as a mumbling stoner than projecting any real sense of intimidation or fear. The brief flashes of Manson as a bloodied devil are pretty striking, however, and the staging of the various murder set-pieces are visceral and splattery.

Also Recommended: The Manson Massacre (1971), The Deathmaster (1972), Charles Manson: Superstar (1989), Manson Family Vacation (2015)

Recommended Reading: The Manson Family on Film and Television by Ian Cooper (McFarland, 2019).


  1. Peter Fraser

    You failed to mention the film CHARLIE SAYS (2019) about the killing of Sharon Tate and others .It was directed by a female and mainly centres on the female members of Manson’s gang..Boring film and not worth watching. I saw it recently by streaming the film.

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