In the late summer of 1969, our movie says in the opening scroll, an unknown band of hippie-styled characters committed the most bizarre crimes in history. And the photoplay this movie presented was a dramatic enactment of those crimes. It was portrayed by professional actors and actresses (-- if you say so, movie), simulating the roles of the principals involved, including the trials in the courts. It also assured that all information utilized in the preparation, writing, and filming of this picture were based on facts obtained entirely from published articles appearing in newspapers and magazines circulated nationally for public consumption, and from information released to various news and commentary programs for public viewing on television.
However, the producers of this film do not intend to defame or prejudice any person or persons living or dead who were depicted or portrayed in this film. And the sole intention was to portray all known facts of these bizarre crimes from those sources.
Thus and so, The Other Side of Madness (1971) rides a fine line between earnest documentary and genuine exploitation piece as it tries to paint its “unbiased” picture of the era and the cumulative circumstances which led Charles Manson and his underlings to commit the heinous Tate-LaBianca massacres, even though there is no official reference to Manson made in the film aside from the obvious stand-in.
Actually filmed and released while Manson and his followers, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Linda Kasabian were still on trial (-- Tex Watson would stand trial later), this little head-trip of a movie was the brainchild of none other than Wade Williams, long before he started gobbling up the rights to old black and white monster movies or getting long lost Ed Wood films out of hoc for public consumption.
See, while growing up in the 1940s Williams had initially wanted to be a cowboy like his heroes, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassiday. But by 1951, after seeing Flight to Mars (1951), nine year old Williams traded in his Stetson and six-shooters for a Tom Corbett Space Ranger helmet and an atomic ray-gun. And as Science Fiction soon became his obsession, he devoured films like The Thing from Another World (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). And as this obsession solidified, Williams was gifted a used 35mm film projector and set up his own private theater in his parent’s backyard, projecting the films from an old shed onto a painted white fence for friends and neighbors.
Before you ask where the films came from, as he grew older, Williams ingratiated himself with several theater owners and started hanging-out around Film Row: a four-block distribution hub in his native Kansas City, where several film exchanges were located, including National Screen Service, where those same theater owners picked up prints, trailers, posters and other advertising materials. And when these films were done making the rounds, they were returned to the exchange, where, more often than not, studios would just have them trash everything instead of paying for shipping to send it back to Hollywood. But one of the managers at NSS, a Hazel Buell, took a shining to young Williams and would give him first crack at the refuse, allowing him to buy old expired posters, trailers, and even features -- his first being a copy of Edward G. Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X (1951).
1960 saw a move to the suburbs for the Williams family, where the new basement was quickly converted into a theater, which included a 14-foot CinemaScope screen, to house a growing collection of films -- 300 to date, trailers, shorts, and projectors and lenses pilfered from shuddered-up theaters. This obsession with film also led to a summer term at the Pasadena Playhouse in Burbank, California, and Williams also worked at the Calvin Studios in Kansas City, where Robert Altman first broke in making industrial films. Then, after serving out a stint in the Air Force Reserve, Williams made another leap, co-writing, producing and directing a Sci-Fi creature feature, Terror from The Stars. Raising over $25,000, the movie was shot and completed but then failed to find a distributor. Undaunted, Williams would soon try making a film again.
Now, about this same time in 1968, around a campfire on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve night, Charles Manson first laid out his prophecy of Helter Skelter, which was based on his totally-skewered interpretation of The Beatles’ White Album and the Book of Revelations, which he felt foretold the coming of a great race war. And when the African Americans inevitably rose up, Manson and his followers would retreat into the desert until the war ended with the black man victorious, and then he would return to take over because Manson felt blacks lacked the mental capacity to hold true power like he did.
Thus and so, this scrawny career criminal, who had combined his knowledge of being a pimp, some tenets of Scientology, and classes on how to be successful and win over and influence people, which were all learned while he was incarcerated, mind you, brainwashed his flock with this bullshit. But six-months later, Helter Skelter had failed to ignite as prophesied; and then, toward the end of June, Manson concluded to save face he would have to light the fuse himself and “show blackie how to do it." With that, between August 9th and August 10th, 1969, Manson orchestrated the mass murder of seven people.
Now, over the 50-years since these heinous acts occurred, there has been some dispute as to the real motive behind them. Was it really the Helter Skelter bullshit Manson was peddling? Was it just a copycat killing for an attempt to throw off suspicion and falsely exonerate fellow Family member Bobby Beausoleil, who was currently in jail awaiting trial for killing Gary Hinman over a money dispute with Manson, where Beausoleil had written "Political piggy" on the wall with the victim’s blood? Or was it meant as a warning and message to record producer Terry Melcher, who, along with several others, including Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, had been stringing Manson along for several months on a possible record deal while taking advantage of The Family’s drugs and women? Melcher used to live where the first murders occurred at 10050 Cielo Drive, Beverly Crest, after all.
Me, I think it was a three-punch combo of all the above plus several other mitigating circumstances -- and a perfect storm of them, at that. And I came to this conclusion after listening to Karina Longworth’s exhaustive 12-part series, Charles Manson’s Hollywood, as part of her excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, and I still clearly remember feeling queasy as all those pieces slowly and relentlessly clicked into place while listening in. So if you’re looking for a more in-depth look at Manson and the cunning and crafty little shit-stain he was and not the legend others have made him out to be, and the dire consequences of the idle rich taking advantage of the poor and destitute and then skipping out when payment comes due, I highly recommend you give that whole thing a listen.
Meantime, Wade Williams entered this blood-stained narrative in 1971. Seems a fascinated Williams sat in on the murder trial and was even granted an interview with Manson; and later, he secured the rights to one of Manson’s songs so they could be used in a quick, cash-in movie Williams co-conspired with filmmaker, Frank Howard, which found a distributor with Prestige Pictures and hit the drive-in circuit before the final verdict even came in.
Originally released as The Other Side of Madness, the film was later retitled The Helter Skelter Murders following the broadcast of the highly rated Made for TV movie, Helter Skelter (1976), based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's book about the trial, and was rushed back into theaters with the new tagline: Now You Can See the Movie That Could Not Be Shown on TV!
Under either title the film is an odd witch’s brew of stuffy staged reenactments and fluid guerilla style footage shot in and around the Spahn Movie Ranch, cutting back and forth between the trial, and what happened before the murders, and then ends with a staging of the actual crime itself. This canned footage was then woven in with genuine footage and lengthy vignettes of “hippie decadence” courtesy of several flashbacks as each witness testifies, including a lengthy look at a bona fide “Love In” as an impromptu concert is thrown together for those not high enough or too busy fornicating to pay attention to the music.
Thus, each witness called to the stand leads us down a different path, all leading to the same inevitable end. There’s even a bizarre color segment which focuses on Sharon Tate’s tragically brief career in Hollywood as an interpretive MGM musical number.
But the true highlight was the dramatization of what the Family and the filmmakers thought the actual Helter Skelter would be like as armed black militants invade suburbia, break into people’s houses and run off with all their furniture that would’ve made even Ron Ormond and Estus Pirkle shake their heads and wag their fingers, saying, Nope, too paranoid, even for us.
And that’s why The Other Side of Madness kinda comes off as one of those old vintage scare shorts on the horror of narcotics, delinquency, and sexually transmitted diseases -- it even ends with a disclaimer on the dangers of drugs.
But it’s true spirit animal is most probably Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) with its stark black and white imagery, moody and hallucinatory visuals, bizarre soundtrack -- including Manson singing his own composition, “Mechanical Man”, amateur acting, and not-quite in-sync dubbing.
Along with directing the picture, Howard also served as cinematographer and editor; and on all fronts he nearly overachieves into something truly avant garde at times; and if the film has any resonance it is due to his efforts behind the camera to give the film the veneer of authenticity. Visually, the film is something else and I’m kinda surprised to see this was Howard’s sole screen credit. And Howard especially shines in the two sequences that bookend the film as it starts in silence with Manson quietly watching those he’s selected to commit the murders divvy up a handful of weapons and drugs over a large map of Los Angeles before dosing-up and heading out is downright Kubrickian in its lighting and metered unfolding.
And then the final third of the film is dedicated to the siege and protracted murders of Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent, where Howard’s style of “point and shoot” is so blunt and matter of fact the film quietly becomes disquieting, and then accelerates into downright unnerving when the knives come out. And this sequence was done so meticulously that Manson’s lawyers were startled by its accuracy according to a front page review in Variety on its initial release.
But the one thing The Other Side of Madness didn’t get right was the portrayal of Manson, whose brooding surrogate here comes off as a turtlenecked preppie. But then again, almost every other film fell into the same trap with the notable exception of Steve Railsback’s spot on performance in Helter Skelter.
I’m not sure why popular media embraced the notion of Manson as a counterculture messiah at best or a hippy Rasputin at worst, where he always kinda looked like Jeffrey Hunter’s bearded and robed lord and savior from King of Kings (1961). And it’s time to call bullshit on that nonsense. The man was a puny little pecker-head, who was a master manipulator that managed to tap into the alienated and disaffected leftovers after the Haight-Ashbury scene went up in flames; and then kept them strung out on drugs as he prostituted out the women for his own gain to help feed his delusions of musical stardom.
Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, before he got mired in his own legal hassles, took the media to task for adding to the hysteria of the incident, saying, “The press was despicable. They sensationalized something that was already sensational.” And Tate’s sister, Debra, who constantly struggles against the possible parole of the surviving convicted Family members, later added in a 2018 essay, “Members of the Manson family have left a permanent stain on our culture. The entertainment industry has helped them reach almost mythic status by churning out seemingly never-ending anniversary shows, recordings of Manson’s music, books, television programs, movies and documentaries."
Tate would later sign-off on Quentin Tarantino’s film, Once Upon a Time In … Hollywood (2019), because he portrayed Manson and his Family as buffoons, who got exactly what they deserved in that alt-history fairy tale. But even these changes were not without controversy over their disingenuous portrayal and the brutal way Watson, Atkins and Krenwinkel meet their comically just ends.
And all of this real-life clutter makes it hard to judge The Other Side of Madness fairly given its subject matter and reason for being as a headline-grabbing, quickie cash-in. It’s a fever dream; both trippy and square, and this dissonance really adds some thrust in spite of the film’s unreliable structure of flashbacks within flashbacks. And it’s also both ghoulish and engrossing, and that dissonance might just make you a little uncomfortable. It’s a weird and strange little bugaboo of a feature, and whether you read it as good or bad, for whatever reason, you cannot deny that it sticks with you long after the film ends with the killers cleaning themselves off before gearing up to go out and do it all over again.
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The Other Side of Madness (1971) Fantasy Films LTD. :: Prestige Pictures Releasing Corps. / P: Wade Williams / D: Frank Howard / W: J.J. Wilke Jr., Duke Howze / C: Frank Howard / E: Frank Howard / M: Sean Bonniwell / S: Brian Klinknett, Erica Bigelow, Paula Shannon, Linda Van Compernolle, Debbie Duff, Phyllis Estes, Gary Donovan, Richard Kaplan, Ray Pitts