America has a ghastly history of multiple murderers – Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, to name just a few. However, none conjures images of unbridled savagery as much as Charles Manson. Worshiped by a bizarre cult of disaffected youths who grotesquely slaughtered strangers at his command, Manson stands alone in the rogues gallery of ghoulish public fascination.

“Helter Skelter,” a 1976 dramatization of the 1969 Manson family killing spree, remains the highest rated two-part miniseries in TV history. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s nonfiction book, the basis for that movie and a remake on CBS Sunday, is one of the best-selling true-crime dramas ever. Thirty-five years after the barbarism, the name Manson is still considered magnetic enough to merit sweeps-period scheduling.

The new “Helter Skelter” is barely half the movie the original was.

It’s playing over three hours in one night, which is a more substantial cutback than it might appear. In the ’70s, a four-hour production had almost three and a half hours of content. Today’s gluttonous commercial load reduces three-hour movies to barely more than two hours of actual story.

The followup also essentially covers only half the story, the part that wasn’t as thoroughly explored in 1976. The original primarily chronicled how Bugliosi brought the Manson family to justice. The remake concentrates on how Manson influenced his disciples to commit the homicidal rampage that earned them international infamy.

The shift in emphasis from the original is easily explained. Societal mores in 1976 would not have abided the gruesome re-creations of the killings, which are the centerpiece of the remake.

“We have an opportunity to portray a lot of the stuff more graphically and intensely now than they would have then,” co-executive producer Mark Wolper said.

He takes full advantage. “Helter Skelter” is not for the squeamish or young impressionable minds.

Aside from titillation junkies and the morbidly curious, there is no good reason for anyone to subject themselves to this shameless exploitation of sadistic violence.

Jeremy Davies is eerily convincing as Manson, so much so that Bugliosi, who has an executive producer’s credit, was taken aback when he first saw him on the set. He says he muttered to himself, “What’s this guy doing out of prison?”

In the credo of Manson, parents are bad for kids. One of his many outlandish rituals and rules includes segregating children from their parents, which causes some private doubts for Linda Kasabian, a drifter with a 2-year-old daughter from a failed marriage. Nonetheless, she quickly enlists in the cult after an introduction by one of Manson’s followers.

Their names came to symbolize the worst of what young people could become: Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, Tex Watson, Squeaky Fromme (who would later attempt to assassinate President Ford), Leslie Van Houten and Sadie Atkins.

“Tex Watson was a track champion in Texas. He played basketball and football. He got all A’s,” Bugliosi said. “Leslie Van Houten was a homecoming princess. Patricia Krenwinkel wanted to become a nun. How did he get these people to go into strangers’ homes, dressed in black in the middle of the night, and kill these people? It’s mind-boggling.”

A flaw in the production is the failure to clearly differentiate the cult members. Not that it really matters. None of the performances stand out, and once the killing starts, the characters are all almost equally culpable.

Kasabian (Clea DuVall) is an exception. She is sickened by the ferocity of the crimes and refuses to take part, although she does go along for the ride. Eventually this enables her to cut a deal with the law. She becomes a star witness for Bugliosi (Bruno Kirby, a non-presence until very late in the film).

Manson’s victims are another reason for his notoriety. Among them is sex symbol actress Sharon Tate, married to director Roman Polanski and pregnant with his child. In a horrific scene, the blood-drenched Tate is shown pleading with her killers to cut the baby from her before she dies, so that the child might live.

Polanksi happens to be out of the country the night the Manson clan, absent Charlie, invades his Beverly Hills home and butchers his wife and four houseguests.

The next night, Manson, displeased at how messy the Tate murders were, joins them in the killing of another Beverly Hills family to show them how he wants it done.

The police eventually raid the ranch to enforce warrants involving lesser charges. It isn’t until some of Manson’s followers confess and others begin to boast of the more serious crimes that the authorities realize they have broken one of the most celebrated murder cases of the 20th century.

CBS is betting that interest remains strong into the 21st century.

Tom Jicha:

(c) 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-05-13-04 1546EDT

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