Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Made for T.V. Manson Family - HELTER SKELTER 1976


      One of the more seminal and unsettling made for T.V. movie events of the 1970’s HELTER SKELTER is probably best known today for the career defining (or career killing some might say) performance by Steve Railsback as Charles Manson. Originally broadcast in two parts (neatly broken up into the investigation and trial) by NBC on April 1 & 2 1976, it drew a 36.5 rating which makes it about the 16th most popular movie ever shown on network television. As it was broadcast only seven years after the actual events, for a time NBC considered not running it in the Los Angeles viewing area.
    A factual re-telling of the infamous murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and his hippie “family” in Los Angeles during the late summer of 1969, it was based upon the bestselling book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. In spite of its obvious TV origins that pop up glaringly at some points it’s still surprising to see when watching it today straight thru how what is basically a police and later courtroom procedural movie can hold ones interest for 194 minutes. As to be expected it concentrates more on the prosecution side of things and their efforts to bring a case against Manson and his followers while sorting out the wildly diverging motives (which are still debated to this day).

    The film starts off kind off oddly with Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) addressing the viewing audience directly with a brief preface concerning the case. DiCenzo’s narration continues throughout the rest of the film and does serve a purpose (along with overheard TV newscasts) of filling in various details such as brief background on the victims and the various members of the Manson Family along with some smaller plot points instead of wasting dialogue and running time explaining them. It then follows the timeline of events as laid out the book fairly closely as it starts off immediately with the murders, which although not shown there are quick glimpses of the bloody aftermath and later during the trial testimony there are flashbacks shown that while not overtly gory do still back a punch. Looking back on this it still seems pretty amazing what the filmmakers were able get away with (1970's network television wise) on this.
    Although we do go back to it at certain points, the police investigation is dispensed with pretty quickly as we mostly just have a few scenes of the detectives standing around talking in the squad room and the movie seems more interested in pointing out the errors made by the police as far as mislaying evidence and the separate jurisdictions failing initially to connect the various murders. The film does an admirable job of keeping the various characters and locations cohesive enough to follow (although for those not overtly familiar with the actual case it might get kind of confusing as the plot bounces back & forth between locations and characters are introduced and then disappear). Plus anyone with knowledge of the basic history of the case might be also be confused as some of the names of the family members have been changed (except for a few instances basically it seems that everyone who was not charged at the time with a crime refused to have their real name used).

    As with most TV movies the acting is pretty much all over the map with Railsback’s performance naturally taking front & center with his creepily intense persona (there are instances where he doesn’t blink for what seems like whole minutes) and a performance that for better or worse would loom over his future portrayals and is pretty much the yardstick by which all future portrayals of Manson would be measured against. He brought the same slightly brink of insanity twitchiness to 1980’s THE STUNTMAN (where he also showed some vulnerability, but was upstaged by Peter O’Toole’s maniacal slightly bonkers director) and LIFEFORCE from 1985 - or Charles Manson meets naked space vampires (actually I love LIFEFORCE).
   As far as the Manson girls are concerned Nancy Wolfe is excellent as Susan Atkins and in any other film probably would have got noticed more (she dropped out of sight for about 20 years soon after HELTER SKELTER) and Cathy Paine as a scenery chewing Leslie Van Houten looks more wild eyed then Railsback’s Manson most times. Busy T.V. actress Christina Hart plays Patricia Krenwinkel and oddly enough most times looks like she stepped off the cover of VOGUE magazine. And hey look, there's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE alumnus Marilyn Burns as Linda Kasabian ! DiCenzo as Bugliosi is fairly stiff in the role, but does bring a single minded doggedness along with being the face & voice of the "The Establishment". The rest of the cast is filled with some familiar TV faces including stuntman and tough guy Roy Jenson (it’s amazing how many things he shows up in) from HARPER and CHINATOWN and in a few years he would battle a disembodied hand along with Samantha Eggar in DEMONOID : MESSENGER OF DEATH

   The film was shot on location in the actual house for the LaBianca murder sequence with another house filling in for the Polanski residence and even more bizarrely the L.A. Police Dept. loaned out the actual car used to transport the murderers to their two nights carnage for use in the movie. The Spahn Ranch location (as by this time the real one had burned down) is that vastly familiar western/corrugated warehouse back lot setting that CHARLIE'S ANGELS, ADAM-12, THE BRADY BUNCH among others all showed up on (along with countless westerns naturally).
   With its combination of murder,drugs, satanism, sex and hippies along with rock & Hollywood royalty the Manson story has fascinated filmmakers with the Academy Award nominated documentary MANSON appearing in 1973 and before that from 1971 was THE NIGHT GOD SCREAMED and SWEET SAVIOR (starring former teen heartthrob Troy Donahue as messiah-like killer) with both while not specifically about the actual murder are obviously influenced. Plus there's the very weird THE CULT (AKA THE MANSON MURDERS) from the early 70's with its somewhat mysterious origins. HELTER SKELTER was first major attempt at a dramatic retelling on the events and was remade in 2004 (with more emphasis on Manson himself & the family).
   There has been numerous projects rumoured in recent years with both Oliver Stone and David Fincher's name being attached at various times and more recently Rob Zombie. In addition there's a low budget one in the works titled THE MANSON GIRLS and for a real decent into hell check out Jim Van Beeber's THE MANSON FAMILY.

   HELTER SKELTER was re-edited into a feature length movie (with a bit more violence added) and released theatrically overseas. Supposedly there's a couple of F-bombs still lurking around in the T.V. version (available on DVD), but I've never been able to catch them. For anyone wanting to delve a little deeper into this after reading HELTER SKELTER, I highly recommend Ed Saunders THE FAMILY (which he periodically updates & reprints).


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rosalba Neri News # 14


    Artus Films of France has been issuing some really outstanding Italian horror DVD's of late (alas not English friendly though) and one of their newest releases is LES VIERGES DE LA PLEINE LUNE (aka THE FULL MOON OF THE VIRGIN). Known in U.S. as THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT, this 1973 production has been a bargain bin favorite since the dawn of home video (along with another Rosalba Italian horror favorite LADY FRANKENSTEIN). Of course its been ordered as part of my seemingly never ending quest to own every released version of this.
   One of the last Gothics from the golden age of Italian horror, this had a beautiful looking DVD release in Italy a couple of years ago and if their past releases are any indication this Artus disc will be at least comparable to that (and you gotta love that cover). Hopefully one day we'll get one over here.
  Artus has also just released a gorgeous looking DVD of the hard to find Italian B&W ghostly revenge movie THE VENGEANCE OF LADY MORGAN from 1965 which happens to star one of this blog's OTHER favorite actresses Erika Blanc.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Archaeologists Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee along with a Rasputin-like Mad Monk, Telly Savalas as a Scenery Chewing Cossack AND a very Beautiful Helga Liné (!) & Silvia Tortosa (!) all battle a Fossilized Prehistoric Brain Sucking Alien (plus a trainload of Zombies !) whilst speeding along on the Trans-Siberian Express ! !

 "A Nightmare of Terror Traveling Abroad the Horror Express !"

      Throughout their long friendship and film career Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing made 22 movies together and while 1972’s HORROR EXPRESS might not be the best of them, it’s surely one of the most entertaining. Combining elements of Joseph Campbell’s short story Who Go’s there? (which formed the basis for the 1951 & 1980 versions of THE THING) along with Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express and even with a bit of Josef Von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS.

    A Spanish/British co-production directed by Eugenio Martín (who also directed the creepy A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL) it has an intricate & cleverly well written script that while on the surface seems to contain a random mash-up of genre plot-lines, but however presents them in a way that allows each to be tied into one another and each of them to serve a purpose of moving the plot forward (usually as fast as the speeding train upon which the movie is set). Perhaps even more surprisingly it lays everything out in a cohesive fashion (that is as cohesive as you can get with brain sucking alien caveman/monster)and is a unique blending of English “Hammer” gothic type horror combined with the more “out there” WTF Spanish style. 

    Probably sharing more screen time & dialogue together here than any of their other collaborations (besides maybe HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLE) the script has some genuinely humorous lines and watching the stiff upper class character that Lee plays trading barbs with the twinkle in eye Cushing is almost as entertaining as the horror elements themselves, plus seeing them band together in a “Holmes & Watson” fashion to solve the mystery of the rampaging monster is a joy to behold. The cast is filled with familiar faces including Helga Line (THE VAMPIRES NIGHT ORGY and THE LORELEY’S GRASP), Silvia Tortosa (also LORELEY’S GRASP), George Rigaud (A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN) and Julio Peña (WEREWOLF SHADOW). 

    Taking place In 1906 Lee plays Prof. Alexander Sexton who uncovers a frozen ape looking thing while on expedition in Manchuria. Arriving at the train station with his crated up specimen Sexton runs into his colleague and rival Dr. Wells (Cushing) who along with his assistant Mrs. Jones (Alice Reinhart) are also traveling via train. This sets up of the first of several wonderful Lee/Cushing dialogue scenes as Cushing slips a Ticketmaster some money to procure a berth on the sold out train and says to Lee “It's called "squeeze" in China and the Americans call it knowhow”, to which Lee (who reservation has been lost) replies “And in Britain we call it bribery and corruption” and sweeps the man’s desk clear with his cane. 
     While the crate is setting on the platform a thief tries to break into and is blinded (with his eyes looking like hard-boiled eggs) and a crazed looking monk (Alberto de Mendoza) declares that evil is located in the crate. Once everyone is aboard train were introduced to a cast of characters worthy of a pulp espionage adventure including out two rival archeologists, a spy (Helga Line) who’s interested in the secret formula for “steel harder then diamonds” held by a Count, the Counts daughter (Silvia Tortosa), a police inspector (Julio Peña ) and the above mentioned slightly lunatic monk. 

    Sexton’s specimen (it resembles a kind of creepy look ape) soon escapes by picking the lock on his crate. Later after the baggage man on the train meets the same fate as the thief Cushing gets to channel some Dr, Frankenstein as rolls up his sleeves and performs a quickie autopsy on him and discovers his brain completely smooth (“as a baby’s bottom”) with the conclusion being the creatures sucks out peoples brain memories thru their eyes leaving the bloody white orbs. This sets in motion the clever plot point of the creature moving thru various passengers gaining knowledge that in turn leads it to the next victim such as the thief's brain giving it knowledge to pick the lock (and plus is able to take over its victims body!). 
    Thanks to the retrieval of the creature’s eye and its dissection Cushing & Lee discover it’s an alien creature that’s been collecting knowledge in the hope of returning to its native planet and has been hanging around since the dinosaurs (this is known because a under a microscope a murky picture of a big ol’ dinosaur can be seen in the creature’s retina along a view of earth from space!?). The plot move along at a terrific pace with seemingly something new thrown in every few minutes and things get even better when a bunch of Cossacks led by the psychotic & scenery gobbling Telly Savalas all board the train and the creature's victims begin to rise back up as resurrected zombies ! 

    As mentioned the script contains some very witty moments such as when wondering who is now possessed by the monster the police inspector says to Cushing & Lee “The two of you together. That's fine. But what if one of you is the monster?” to which Cushing replies “Monster? We’re British you know”. In a story related by director Martin in the supplements of the Severin disc Cushing had signed to do this picture but then decided to back out at the last minute as he could not bear to leave England so soon after the death of his wife Helen, but Christopher Lee gently prodded him into going (and their friendship is fully on display here). 

    Composer John Cacavas (who also composed the music for AIRPORT 1975 & tons of T.V. stuff) contributes a strangely effective & atmospheric spaghetti western type score complete with whistling that is used to great effect and is used several times has actual music played on a piano or whistled by characters in the film. 
   An excellent example of 1970’s Euro Horror and a great place for the uninitiated to dip their toe into the water. After years of shoddy PD releases (this has to be tied with LADY FRANKENSTEIN for most crappy video releases) Severin released (under its Spanish title PANICO EN EL TRANSIBERIANO or PANIC ON THE TRANS SIBERIAN) a nice blu ray that has a fascinating 40 minute long audio interview with Cushing (where he’s hyping up Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL), a video interviews with director Martin, composer Cacavas and producer Bernard Gordon (who speaks of being blacklisted). Plus you get Helga Line in HD.


Helga Line