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‘Manson’s Lost Girls’ Review: Retelling of Helter Skelter Is Blunt and Dull

Lifetime movie is missed opportunity

There is an appreciable irony in the fact that Charles Manson, so hungry for fame, has never inspired a work of lasting importance save “Helter Skelter,” the account of his downfall written by its architect, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. There’s no “Bonnie and Clyde” to romanticize his murderous Family and their home on Spahn Ranch; no “Monster” to humanize him. Manson remains in many ways an enigma, a riveting representation of malignity that defies the conventions of storytelling.

Instead, writers are drawn to the women who surrounded him and provided him with adulation. From Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme singing “Unworthy of Your Love” in Stephen Sondheim‘s “Assassins” to putting Linda Kasabian front and center in Lifetime movie “Manson’s Lost Girls,” it’s Manson’s Family who provide audiences a glimpse into the mass hysteria that he managed to inspire–along with those nightly visits to the homes of L.A.’s wealthy denizens called “creepy crawls” and the eventual descent into wholesale slaughter.

Kasabian should be an easy introduction to the Family: She was the star witness during the Manson Family trials, realizing the ugliness at the heart of Manson’s charisma. But Kasabian, too, is off-kilter enough to resist easy identification; one thinks of Joan Didion’s account of interviewing her at the Sybil Brand Institute in “The White Album,” in which she can bring herself to share only one of Linda’s resolutely unself-aware ironies: Linda wanted to open “a combination restaurant-boutique and pet shop.”

Nevertheless, “Manson’s Lost Girls” uses Linda as the audience’s surrogate, sans entrepreneurial schemes. Filmed with all the stylistic panache of an Instagram account run by a boho chic hipster adept with filters, the movie begins with the Cielo Drive murders (which involved Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, and Jay Sebring) and Linda’s attempts to escape the ranch before flashing back to happier days, when the Family was content to count Charlie’s abs and steal cars from horny guys at local bars.

These activities, according to the film, are just gateway crimes to murder–at least, for Charlie’s girls Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Squeaky Fromme. Fellow Family members Tex and Bobby, also outfitted in abdominal-baring vests, barely register as either characters or presences. There is a vague, unsettling sense to the movie that Charlie condoned the various murders without quite ordering them–which may stem partly from the filmmakers’ refusal to use Charlie as anything other than a Christ-like Abercrombie & Fitch pinup, who cries as he starts to make love to Linda for the first time. “Jesus wept when he saw Jerusalem,” he says by way of explanation.

The supporting cast–uniformly pretty, toned, and wooden–are as serviceable as the casts of most Lifetime films. Jeff Ward is appropriately magnetic as Charlie and MacKenzie Maury manages to progress from happy hippie to horrified survivor smoothly. Everyone else is asked to do little more than look good and deliver lines with some combination of sincerity and threat.

Even approached with the low expectations that generally accompany the viewing of any Lifetime film, “Manson’s Lost Girls” feels like a missed opportunity. But perhaps this time the fault isn’t with Lifetime, but with the story itself. Manson’s Family and their mad Helter Skelter plan is too weird, too inexplicable, and too genuinely terrifying to be contained within 80-something minutes, minus commercials.