Here’s a date in history so grisly it would almost be wrong to acknowledge it with the word “anniversary.” Forty years ago, on August 9 and 10, 1969 (starting around midnight on the 9th), the Tate/LaBianca murders commenced — the gruesome slaughter of innocents masterminded by Charles Manson. So why am I bringing this up on ew.com? Because Manson, in addition to being one of the most monstrous figures of the 20th century — the hippie-psycho cult-killer equivalent of Adolf Hitler — also became, in the very extremity and fascination of his evil, a part of popular culture.
He was famously associated with it. There was his friendship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, which led to the California rockers recording one of Manson’s songs. (Guns N’ Roses did one, too, releasing it as an unlisted track on 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident.) There was Manson’s famous, quasi-paranoid-schizophrenic belief that the Beatles were calling out to him, sending him murderous messages through their music, especially that wavery, proto-punk bad-vibe apocalypse “Helter Skelter.” (Isn’t it ironic that that was one of Paul’s songs rather than John’s?) And, of course, there was the fact that Manson victim Sharon Tate was the wife of Roman Polanski, director of bloody and disturbing nightmare thrillers, which only added — however speciously — to the creepy gestalt of the crime.
But Manson himself was also made for pop culture. With his long hair and bushy beard, his derelict snarl and children-of-the-damned mesmeric stare, and, ultimately, a swastika carved into his forehead (an act that Quentin Tarantino echoes in his upcoming Inglourious Basterds), Manson fashioned himself into an iconic figure — a Satanic hippie-Christ demon, a messiah of hate. His image became, in its dark way, as larger-than-life as that of Che Guevara. And Manson, unlike Che, had a personality to match.
Long after his capture and incarceration, the legend of Manson has only kept growing. For one thing, Manson himself knew how to deploy the gutter-rat cunning of his demented but spookily articulate down-home-nutjob personality to exploit his own infamy. Anyone who ever saw it will never forget the 1981 prison interview he granted to Tom Snyder, in which he bamboozled the late-night talk-show host with his mystic-malevolent mumbo jumbo, and Snyder tried to bamboozle him right back (“Get off the space shuttle, Charles!”). And the Manson/media square dance has been going on ever since — as in, say, the 2007 MSNBC special The Mind of Manson, which aired a complete Manson interview originally conducted in 1987 for The Today Show (the producers of whom were too freaked to air anything but 11 minutes of it). Every time Charles Manson gets let out of his cage, he’s smart enough to put on a good show. One of the most vile aspects of the Tate/LaBianca murders, in fact, is that the man who planned them understood all too well that in a media-saturated society, even homicide could be turned into a twisted form of if-it-bleeds-it-leads showbiz.
But then there are the movies made about Charles Manson — the documentaries, the novelty re-enactments of what really went on within “The Family” (like 2005’s The Manson Family), and a bookend pair of CBS television dramatizations. In 1976, Steve Railsback drew raves for playing Manson in a two-part TV-movie adaptation of Helter Skelter, and Railsback was extraordinarily good — feral, scary, intense. But I’d like to draw your attention to a version of the Manson saga that never won the acclaim, or the prominence, it deserved. Five years ago, Jeremy Davies played Manson in a 2004 TV remake of Helter Skelter that was bolder, scarier, and even more unsettlingly authentic than the 1976 version. Davies first won the role by making his own audition tape, which became a widely circulated industry bootleg, and the producers allowed him to rewrite his lines. His performance is a revelation. If you want to know what Charles Manson is all about, then this is the movie to see.
Davies is best known for roles in which he palpitates with anxiety. He was the pathological-dweeb hero of David O. Russell’s 1994 Spanking the Monkey, and (most memorably) the cowardly Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan, where his milk-pale face and squinty eyes became an indelible, trembling image of the primal terror of war. In Helter Skelter, Davies freezes that fear and flips it inside out. He’s the first actor to capture Manson’s danger, his sociopathic ice-gleam stare, and he also gets Manson the wackadoo hipster, snaky and jaunty, hypnotized by the beatnik flow of his own words, which is how he could use them to hypnotize others. Leaning in close to the girls in his flock, he wraps a whispery drawl around lines like “How long you gonna keep playing your part in their game — your disposable role in the game they keep playin’ with your mind?” He seethes like a wasp with a broken stinger.
Davies’ Manson is an antsy varmint, like Kris Kristofferson on some very bad drugs. With eyebrows lowered, permanently, into his face, everything he says is a sneaky threat; there’s violence in his twirly hand gestures, his crooked, swaying walk. Yet even when Davies is going off into one of Charlie’s crackpot, shaman-of-the-’60s rants, he shows you that secret part of Manson whose mind is always calculating. More than just street-smart, he’s a politician, a born delegator, which is how he gets others to commit unspeakable crimes for him.
Of course, the fact that Charles Manson himself never killed anyone — at least, not on Aug. 9 or 10 — is part of what’s so chilling about his saga. The murderous Manson girls were smiling middle-class achievers and homecoming queens. The fact that they could have been turned into such barbaric monsters is the real mystery at the heart of those events. The standard explanation is, “They were brainwashed by Charlie,” but the darker half of the explanation — and it’s captured deftly by the 2004 Helter Skelter — is that they were willing, on some level, to be brainwashed. Their identities were that fragile and malleable. And that, more than anything, is what still haunts us, 40 years later, about the Manson murders — that they tapped and brought to the surface the demons that lived inside “ordinary” people. That was Charles Manson’s sick way of changing the world, and it worked.