Warning: This contains major spoilers for The Haunting Of Sharon Tate.
Fifty years ago this August, Sharon Marie Tate Polanski and four others — Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and groundskeeper Steven Parent — were brutally murdered in her home at 10050 Cielo Drive by members of the Manson Family. She was eight and a half months pregnant at the time.
It’s a senseless crime, an inexplicably vicious act of violence that haunts us to this day. In 2019 alone, three movies are set to depict the traumatic events of that 1969 summer. One of these however, has taken the whole haunting thing a little too literally. The Haunting of Sharon Tate, which hits theaters on April 5, turns that very real tragedy into a cheap jump scare horror film.
Starring Hilary Duff as the doomed actress, Daniel Farrands’ film shows her suffering from strange premonitions and visions in the days leading up to her death, seemingly suggesting that the murders had a supernatural connection, or at the very least, were part of a larger plan. As you can imagine, this premise has already earned the film substantial backlash. Tate’s sister Debra slammed the plot in February 2018, telling People: "I know for a fact she did not have a premonition — awake or in a dream — that she and Jay [Sebring, her hairstylist] would have their throats cut. I checked with all of her living friends. None of her friends had any knowledge of this. Tacky, tacky, tacky."
The arrival of the trailer, which claimed the events depicted within are “based on a true story” before framing the whole thing as an Are You Afraid Of The Dark?-style ghost story, in January, only fueled the public’s distaste.
Still, this would all have been overlooked, had the film turned out to be even mildly interesting.
Alas, The Haunting of Sharon Tate is not a good movie. I would chalk it up to an April Fool’s joke had it not been in the works for well over a year. The dialogue is clunky, the delivery stilted, and the low production value makes it all feel like a flashback sequence from a very low-budget History Channel documentary about the Manson Family.
Duff, with affected old Hollywood diction, plays Tate as a woebegone mother-to-be, helplessly awaiting husband Roman Polanski’s return as she’s tormented by nightmares of a man known only as “Charlie,” who she thinks is out to get her, her unborn child, and her friends.
The most puzzling thing about The Haunting of Sharon Tate — and that is saying something — is that it’s not clear what it seeks to accomplish. Is it just to scare? Is it a wish-fulfillment scenario in which the protagonists avoid the fate we know to be theirs? An excuse to poorly recreate late 1960s decor? A commentary on Manson and his cult? A mind-altering theory about the multiverse? Ferrands’ script touches on each one of these things, without actually committing to any of them.
This is a film that features one of the most gruesome, savage sequences I’ve seen since Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding. Tate’s first premonition, which comes roughly a third of the way through the film, gives a play-by-play of the real murders, ending with Tate pleading to be allowed to live long enough to have her baby before being stabbed 16 times. Having no prior knowledge of the plot, I was certain that they were all actually dead, and though unsure how the film would continue past that, I certainly never expected the actual outcome, which is that it was all a DREAM. Somehow, even when it succeeds at subverting expectations, this movie fails.
In the film’s defense, it was only a matter of time before someone showed the murders in their entirety, and with a Tarantino film on the horizon, we should probably be getting used to the blood. But then, in a twist that feels lifted straight out of this year’s second-worst movie, Serenity, Sharon and her friends survive the ordeal, only to realize that they are in an alternate reality. Looking back at the driveway she just escaped, Sharon sees her own corpse, covered with a sheet, her bloodied pregnant belly peeking through the folds. A voiceover calls back to an earlier conversation with friend and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett), in which he explains: “I think there’s infinite versions, infinite realities. We’re probably living a version of our story for who knows, probably forever. At least, until we get it right.”
What is the point here? That the horrendous murder of a pregnant woman and four other innocent people was bad? That it could have been avoided? That time is a construct, and we’re all just floating along on the road to nowhere?
It’s only human to want to seek answers to crimes like this one. What happened to the people at 10050 Cielo Drive that fateful night was sudden, violent, and incredibly tragic. But to suggest that it’s just a blip in the course of history that could be righted given the right set of tools just seems insulting to the real victims. Showing the murders when you’re going to allow your characters to escape their fates is gratuitous — a voyeuristic, borderline offensive way of tricking viewers into caring.
What’s worse, there was a good story hidden in there somewhere. As Sharon starts getting more and more agitated from her visions, her friends become increasingly concerned. But rather than supporting and believing her, they chalk up her stress to her pregnancy, telling her to rest, calm down, stop being hysterical. In other words, they completely gaslight her. One could easily imagine a compelling horror movie there, rooted in the insidious, commonplace dismissals that women, and pregnant women in particular, experience on a day-to-day basis.
In fact, the premise might have worked better without the so-called “true events” aspect. Making this about Sharon Tate feels exploitative, a ruse to use her gruesome glamour for shock value. Hasn’t she suffered enough?