Review: The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter
To a certain-“that’s an interesting story”-extent, I have always been intrigued by serial killers. Not in a creepy-avid-fandom sense, but rather from the perspective of psychological curiosity. I have always felt the need to somehow understand society’s monsters; to find some rationality in their chaos of thought and action. From a reflective standpoint, one might assume that I somehow seek to understand the irrational and illogical in an attempt to feel at ease. Maybe by deciphering the enigma of the modern maniac, I can in some way seek ‘the pattern’…’the purpose’. Which I suppose is true. In my mind, I just feel that everything can be boiled down to a core – a central spark of principle. By seeking to dismantle the carnage and context, I feel that I can, in some way, ‘get’ these people. And in turn I feel safer; I feel that I can protect myself and my family from the crippling irrationality of fear and confusion. Or maybe I’m just like everyone else, and carry a warped fascination with gore. Regardless of this, I recently stumbled upon a documentary which I feel maintains a similar purpose as my own; to deconstruct the mind of evil.
History is littered with shocking tales of individuals who do the unthinkable, but serial killers have always been a particular focus of media frenzy. There are numerous names and faces that we all recognise; images and sounds burned into the psyche of modern society. But despite the fever pitch surrounding each ghoulish individual, there seems to be certain divisions within the notoriety. Anyone with at least a remote interest will be familiar with names such as Peter Sutcliff, Ed Gein, Mary Ann Cotton and David Berkowitz. There are regional names, ones which ring out in certain countries and send a shudder through generations; names such as Javed Iqbal, Miyuki Ishikawa, Harold Shipman and Myra Hindley. Then there are the big ones, names so infamous that they are recognised almost anywhere in the world. Ted Bundy, The Wests, Jack the Ripper and Charles Manson are amongst the names on that select list. Manson is technically not a serial killer, but rather a cult leader. He may have more in league with the likes of Jim Jones, but many still see him as something other than just ‘another crazy cult guy’. As a man responsible for the seemingly random and horrific deaths of ‘regular’ people, Manson is arguably one of the most chilling identities in the killer alumni…and if you didn’t think so before, you will once you’ve seen The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter.
Michael Dorsey’s little seen documentary is a wonderfully researched low budget exploration of the events surrounding the Tate/LaBianca murders. Host and ‘death enthusiast’ Scott Michaels takes a camera crew on a blood trail through 40 plus locations linked to Charles Manson and the Manson Family. The film is inaccessible at first. Michaels’ narration is delivered at 100mph, and he throws names around with the supposition of a man who obviously expects a certain level of prior knowledge from his viewers. The tacky visual aids and dodgy sound editing screams of a man with little or no ability to engage with his medium, this is truly a project made to educate rather than entertain. Whether consciously or unconsciously, as a modern audience we expect a certain beat or rhythm from filmmakers – but director Dorsey is clearly tone deaf (as a metaphor, think Steve Martin dancing in The Jerk). Visual aids, voice over work and sound seem to fall independent of each other, leaving the viewer with a sense that the disc may be scratched or damaged. On more than one occasion, Michaels will be talking about a particular person and place, whilst Dorsey chooses to present us with an image of something completely different. The whole project feels uncouth and untrained. Yet, somewhere along the way you become too immersed in the story, too engrossed in Michaels’ sheer depth of knowledge, to be distracted by the poor film quality.
Scott Michaels is the founder of L.A based tour company, Dearly Departed Tours. Slightly neurotic and outwardly nerdy, Michaels is as endearing as he is informed about the film’s topic. He makes no qualms in advertising the emotional connection he shares with the Manson saga. Michaels is very candid about his unusual obsession with the dead (in particular, dead celebrities), and brazenly plugs his tours, books and that of his friends. But this is all by the by, because when Michaels gets into the nitty-gritty of the story, it is very clear that he is not just ‘knowledgeable’ about the Manson story – he is engrossed by it. He takes the time, albeit in between short sharp breaths, to impart every conceivable detail on Manson. This is not a study of the Manson Family, nor is it a paint-by-numbers detailing of events – it is that rare gem, a little of both.
Make no mistake; The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter is not a Manson documentary. It is a visual essay of the events leading up to, and surrounding, the Tate/LaBianca murders. It is a film about the victims and the places it happened – its forensic history…with a dash of geek zeal. Michaels presents his theories about Manson, and challenges the theories of others, but all of this is done in a very informal and non-academic way. Neither Michaels nor Dorsey are able to offer an all-access-pass to every location, and peripheral historical/cultural context is sidelined, probably due to gaps in knowledge. But the overall project is surprisingly engaging and informative, leaving you with a sense of information overload and emotional disturbance. The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter takes you on a journey, one much more jarring than any modern horror movie. It may be ugly and uncomfortable at times, but so is the subject matter.
The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter is available now to rent and buy on DVD