Written and Directed by: Daniel Farrands
Starring: Hilary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, and Lydia Hearst
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Witness the Shocking Events through the eyes of Hollywood's Brightest Star
Following his untimely death in 1973, Bruce Lee’s spirit—or some weird, twisted version of it—lived on in the throng of “Bruceploitation” movies shamelessly produced to cash in on his legacy. Before his death, however, he lived quite an interesting life that saw him doing various jobs in Hollywood before breaking out as an international mega-star with The Big Boss. One behind-the-scenes gig found him choreographing The Wrecking Crew, where he trained a number of Hollywood stars for fight sequences, including the ill-fated Sharon Tate in her penultimate role. Now, 50 years after her death, Tate’s own fate is beginning to mirror that of her martial arts mentor, as her legacy has also continued on-screen in various productions in recent years.
Most notable among these is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, featuring Margot Robbie as the starlet and due later this summer. In the meantime, we have Daniel Farrands’s The Haunting of Sharon Tate, which definitely earns the mantle of “Tatesploitation.” It’s less a genuinely intriguing probe into the circumstances and psychology of the horrific violence that claimed Tate’s life and more an excuse to capitalize on gossipy, tabloid rubbernecking surrounding it, all while posturing as a grand rumination about destiny and the universe or some nonsense. Put it this way: it’s the sort of film that opens with Poe’s famous “dream within a dream” quote in an obvious attempt at waxing philosophic. You half-expect to hear a bong rip and find yourself in a shady basement with a dude rambling on about conspiracy theories throughout the duration of The Haunting of Sharon Tate.
Inspired by an (apparently false) tabloid interview wherein Tate claimed to have a dream of her own murder two years before it occurred, The Haunting opens with the actress (portrayed here by Hilary Duff) recounting her nightmarish vision of a future yet to pass before it flashes ahead to the grisly Manson family murders that took her life. Then it flashes back again, to a few days before the murders, when a very pregnant Tate arrived at her new home with long-time friend Jay Sebring. Holed up in the Hollywood Hills while her husband Roman Polanski is off working on his latest movie, Tate grows increasingly paranoid that something bad is about to happen. Ominous visits by a mysterious man known only as “Charlie” haunt her dreams, inspiring premonitions about a home invasion that ends with her own death.
But mostly it just inspires a ton of ponderous, banal dialogue, wherein Duff and company sit around having portentous, on-the-nose conversations about life itself, particularly the notion of fate: are we victims of fate? Can we change our fate? Is there a multiverse at work, where our lives play out in all of their infinite possibilities? It’s the stuff of a freshman philosophy class, delivered with all the grace and coherence of a kid with bloodshot eyes hammering out a term paper at the deadline. Even worse, it completely telegraphs the film’s main conceit: “what if Tate’s premonitions could have helped her to prevent her own death?”
Not that the film foregoes an opportunity to actually exploit the murders and intricately restage them. You get all the gory details: Tex Watson (Tyler Johnson) leading the charge into Tate’s home, where he and his associates torture and eventually kill Tate and Sebring, plus Abigail Folger (Lydia Hearst) and Wojciech Frykowski (Pawel Szajda), who are depicted as a pair of annoying, nosy squatters whose deaths are actually welcome. Of course, it’s all big fake-out anyway, the first of many dream sequences meant to shock you as you’re actually rolling your eyes. Even the dudes behind Freddy’s Nightmares would find these fake-outs excessive.
The Haunting doesn’t just lean on pulling the rug beneath your expectations, though. It also trots out standard haunted house cues and tropes. At least a third of the film involves Duff wandering around the house, encountering bizarre phenomena, like a noisy icemaker, Charles Manson’s aborted music recordings, and her husband’s office. An ominous—and ominously generic—score thuds throughout these sequences, practically underlining, bolding, and italicizing every scary moment. Farrands apparently doesn’t trust his audience enough to know that the mysterious, shaggy stranger at the door is Charles Manson: he’s got crank up the bass and the shrieking notes in the score, plus have a character confirm “that’s Charlie” later on. Just in case you still don’t get what’s going on, Tate stumbles upon a copy of the Rosemary’s Baby script…in a movie that basically becomes an homage to Rosemary’s Baby. Did I mention the heavy-handed game of fortune telling that ends with a spiritual roulette board telling Sharon she won’t live a long, happy life?
So it goes for the duration of The Haunting of Sharon Tate, a film that overdoes every single moment yet somehow still plods along aimlessly. Wedged between standard horror clichés (a dead dog; ominous backward masking tapes that screech “Helter Skelter”;Manson appearing in a mirror and mysteriously disappearing) is more dreadful dialogue as Farrands attempts to carve some kind of cathartic, feel-good story with an alternate history take. I suppose it’s an admirable stab at rewriting Tate’s legacy from being a victim in her own story to being a triumphant survivor. However, that’s all this feels like: an elaborate daydream that somehow managed to become a feature film. It’s a movie with a clear hook but never finds anything to say about it beyond faux-spiritual platitudes, and even those become muddled by the sight of Sharon Tate gazing upon her own corpse at one point. What does it even mean?
Of course, it doesn’t have to mean anything; what’s more important is that it’s been rolled out amidst the hoopla of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the impending 50th anniversary of the Manson movies. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s akin to the Asylum beating a film to the punch with one of its “mockbusters,” but the effect is more or less the same, whether it was intended or not. It’s shameless in a way that would be admirable if there were some actual grit to it: in some ways, the decent (but unremarkable) production values strip the film of its seediness: instead of feeling like a genuinely disreputable exploitation movie, it looks too nice and sanitized, what with its young stars essentially playing a game of dress up. It’s not entirely Duff’s fault that you can’t buy into any of this—she’s definitely fine as Tate, but the script seems to be more enamored with the idea of Sharon Tate than who she actually was.
That’s why it’s hardly a surprise that Tate’s family—particularly her sister—has disavowed the entire production as a tasteless cash-grab. It most certainly is, even if you can just barely acknowledge that Farrands and company might have had their hearts in the right places upon setting out. Maybe The Haunting of Sharon Tate started out with the good intentions of imagining a world where the star wasn’t defined by her own grisly demise; however, the final product dwells so much on that grim reality that its last-minute rug-pull rings false. It wants to exploit Tate the victim and champion Tate the fictional survivor without truly saying anything about her or the horrors she endured. For a film that ponders about the universe’s infinite possibilities, it sure does settle for the most tepid and vapid approach imaginable for this material.
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