Lesley Chilcott’s docuseries, “Helter Skelter: An American Myth,” adds some new wrinkles to the exhaustively chronicled story of Charles Manson, his “family” of followers and the horror they unleashed on LA in August of 1969.
And that’s saying a lot, since you’d think, by now, that we know everything there is to know about the horrific butchering of actress Sharon Tate, her unborn baby and four others in the Hollywood hills — followed, the next night, by the double-homicides of Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. The seven so-called “Tate-LaBianca murders” terrified an entire city and gave rise to our long-standing (you might say obsessive) pre-occupation with toxically charismatic ringleader Manson, who died in prison in 2017 at the age of 83.
What Chilcott (“An Inconvenient Truth”) has done with the six-part “An American Myth”(Sundays at 10 p.m. on Epix) is to dive more deeply into the roots of both Manson and his “family,” largely comprised of disaffected young women, some of whom (Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, Leslie Van Houten) took part in the Tate-LaBianca murders along with Manson’s right-hand man, Tex Watson.
But Chilcott and the docuseries’ executive producers, including TV wunderkind Greg Berlanti, take the now-familiar story and turn it inside-out by digging deeply into Manson’s childhood and what led him to become the country’s most notorious murderer and the epitome of homegrown evil. They had the good sense to allow Jeff Guinn, who wrote the excellent and comprehensive 2013 “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson,” to anecdotally walk viewers through his turbulent childhood in great (and vivid) detail — from his nomadic, largely motherless childhood spread across Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia through his years spent in reform schools and then prison, where he honed the psychological tricks he used to recruit his followers first in Berkeley, Calif. and then in LA. Manson used the the rules he learned from reading and reciting Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Later, he would add drugs (including LSD) to his arsenal.
For those uninitiated or not well-versed in the Manson story, “An American Myth” offers up plenty of stock news footage of the murder scenes (from both local and national TV outlets) and of the Manson family at Spahn’s Movie Ranch, the seedy hangout they called home. Their leech-like friendship with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson is recounted (several times) but I’m guessing only diehard true-crime fans know that Angela Lansbury’s daughter, Deirdre, was briefly in the family’s orbit. They used her credit cards to run up massive bills before her mother got wise and shipped her off to Ireland.
There are plenty of archival interviews with Manson and compelling new interviews with eyewitness family members including Catherine Share and with Bobby Beausoleil, now 72 and serving a life sentence for murdering musician Gary Hinman in service of Manson just days before the Tate-LaBianca killings. All of the usual stock news footage is there — the murder scenes, the family’s Spahn Movie Ranch headquarters, etc. Manson’s main ambition was to be a musician like The Byrds and The Beatles (his favorite groups) and “An American Myth” recounts that journey, using rarely heard snippets of his recordings to relay that side of his twisted story.
Fans of true-crime, and particularly the docuseries genre, should sample “An American Myth — if only to be reminded of the many forms in which evil presents itself.
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