It's 2004 and apparently time for another dramatic reenactment of the Sharon Tate murders. Sunday night brings us "Helter Skelter," the second -- and hopefully the last -- adaptation of Vincent Bugliosi's true-crime memoir of the Manson Family. The movie has its points, but enough is enough.
And it's not as if Charlie has been absent from our cultural midst in the 28 years since the last version. He's been the subject of TV interviews and true-crime documentaries, from Tom Snyder's first jailhouse chat in 1981 to a 1995 A&E "Biography"; has shown up as a character on "South Park"; and was regularly impersonated by Bob Odenkirk on "The Ben Stiller Show." As a representative of the dark side of the '60s, and our own Jack the Ripper, he's practically folkloric.
Like Sid Vicious, Manson has endured as a hardy icon of a perverse kind of hip: The coming puppet-animated "Live Freaky, Die Freaky," in which Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter" becomes the bible of a future world, will feature voice work by members of Green Day, Rancid, Good Charlotte and Blink-182. Sonic Youth, Redd Kross and the Lemonheads have written songs about Manson, or covered songs by him. Nine Inch Nails recorded at the Tate murder scene and even filmed a video there. And then there is Marilyn Manson.
Obviously theirs is not the audience that CBS -- which also broadcast the first version, only seven years after the fact, to record ratings -- is counting upon. The alt-rock/punk-rock demographic does not a sweeps success make. Yet there is much to suggest, if only from the success of the network's expanding "CSI" franchise, that the appetite for such a thing is widespread.
There are two questions to consider here: the worth of the project and the quality of the product. The first is at least questionable, and no less so for the film's being anything but unique -- true-murder tales are alive and well across the dial. You don't watch a show like this to learn something significant about the human condition or even for the good old thrill of seeing evil punished. (Evil here is punished only in the closing title cards.) Those who come will come to see something awful, for the thrill of the unthinkable, for the teenage kicks, the sex, drugs and murder.
As to the second question, the new "Helter Skelter" is on one level very good, and on another, not quite good enough.
Where the first film was a police procedural along the lines of "Dragnet" or "Law & Order," in which the killings, orgies and acts of mayhem were not shown but related in dialogue from police interviews and trial transcripts, the new film undertakes to turn that testimony into drama -- it shows you (or this being TV, sort of shows you) what the first "Helter Skelter" only suggested, and it does so with disturbing artfulness.
Writer-director John Gray has done very good work with period docudramas: "The Hunley" and "The Day Lincoln Was Shot" conveyed information, told a story and captured the essence of a time and place. Here as there, Gray has done his homework, created a few actual characters, kept the action moving and elicited fine performances from a talented, well-chosen cast.
As Manson, Jeremy Davies ("Dogville," "Saving Private Ryan") is especially fine. Born two months after the Tate murders, he's just the right age for the part and has clearly studied his model. Davies' Charlie is quieter, more graceful and funnier than predecessor Steven Railsback's pop-eyed prophet; he talks just enough sense to suggest his appeal.
As Linda Kasabian -- present at but not a participant in the Sharon Tate murder, and the key witness against Manson -- Clea DuVall (one of the worthwhile things about HBO's "Carnivale") is also very good; she's the protagonist here, a sympathetic Alice down the wrong rabbit hole.
And yet, though "Helter Skelter" aims for truth, it fails the facts. The more stylish the production becomes, and it becomes very stylish -- the prison and jail scenes, for instance, are all digitally dyed a deep blue, and transitions from one scene to another are marked by spooky sound effects and timpani hits -- the less it represents its time. Often it resembles nothing so much as an episode of "The X-Files" (whose Mark Snow composed the overwrought "Helter Skelter" soundtrack).
The film fails to capture the particular madness of the story, which is not distinct from the madness of the time but an extreme expression of it. There's no understanding Manson -- if there's any understanding Manson -- without understanding that moment when the good vibrations of the Summer of Love turned bad, as voodoo and violence mixed with incense and flowers, communes collapsed into cults and late-hippie utopianism was overtaken by apocalyptic militancy.
It was a strange cultural soup that could produce the almost farcical scenario in which lonely teenagers and pop stars alike would fall under the sway of a man who saw the end of the world in a Beatles album. And it's not captured here.
Much is shown, but little is revealed.
When: 8-11 p.m. Sunday
Rating: The network has rated the movie TV-14LV (may not be suitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)
Jeremy Davies...Charles Manson
Clea DuVall...Linda Kasabian
Allison Smith...Patricia Krenwinkel
Eric Dane...Tex Watson
Marguerite Moreau...Susan Atkins
Bruno Kirby...Vincent Bugliosi
Executive producers Mark Wolper, Peter Miller, Vincent Bugliosi. Director-writer, John Gray.