THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE IS THE SAME OLD STORY, BUT WITH AN INTERESTING TWIST
At this point, I’ve lost track of how many horror films have been made about Sharon Tate and the damn Manson family. From films like Wolves at the Door to Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the story has been told so many times, it’s arguably been fetishized. The Haunting of Sharon Tate does, however, take a slightly different look at the story.
Keep in mind, I only say slightly, because the upcoming flick from Saban Films is still very much the Manson family tale we know so well. Written/directed by Daniel Farrands (Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy), The Haunting of Sharon Tate stars Hilary Duff as the titular character, based on the real-life actress whose life was cut too short by Manson and his followers. Pregnant with Roman Polanski’s child, Sharon finds herself plagued by visions of the brutal death of her and her friends, and struggles to convince them of what’s coming.
Not to make a pun out of the title, but The Haunting of Sharon Tate is, in fact, a haunting film which, more so than others on the topic, attempts to capture the innocent spirit of Sharon, and endears the audience to her character and her desperate attempt to rewrite her fate. The film opens on sort of a black and white confessional as Sharon predicts, to us, the death that is coming her way, intercut with grotesque images from the crime scene. Farrands film kicks off three days before the murders, which become an escalating nightmare for Sharon as she begins experiencing tropey horror, such as blood coming out of the bath tub, satanic voices chanting over the phone, and some incredibly effective nightmare scenes. Sharon can sense something is going to happen, but doesn’t know how to stop it.
This is what is so fascinating about Farrand’s take on the story. This questioning of fate, and whether or not our lives are in our own hands, or a higher power, good or evil. Which this story in particular is actually perfect for. Farrands drops at first what appears to be an Easter egg, with Polanski’s script for Rosemary’s Baby lying around the house, but that film has a strong connection to Sharon’s own story. Pregnant and haunted by Satanists, she finds herself alone because her friends don’t believe her, and herself is growing more and more paranoid by the day, to the point where she doesn’t know what’s real. Like Mia Farrow’s character in Polanski’s film, she is in a battle against her own mind, as well as the forces closing in on her. Farrands film isn’t nearly as effective in that respect, but the thematic similarities are there.
Of course, to sell a psychological horror film like this, the characters have to be well portrayed, and it’s going to sound like a cop out, but I still can’t decide how to feel about Duff’s portrayal as Sharon. On one hand, she does something with her voice that feels off, as if she can’t decide to go full valley girl or not, and the dialogue doesn’t seem to come naturally to her. On the other hand, Farrand’s writing is effective, and Duff has an innate ability to wear emotion on her features, which, altogether, creates a performance which is utterly heartbreaking by the end. I wish the same could be said for the others, all of whom deliver fine portrayals, but are sorely lacking character development. Maybe it’s just because these characters are vapid celebrity humpers, but no one outside of Sharon is all that interesting in this film, not even Charlie (Ben Mellish). The entire film rests on Duff’s shaky performance, and falters at times because of that.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate doesn’t necessarily need great characters though, because outside of the intriguing thematics, Farrands excels at sucker-punching the audience with shocking blow after blow. One of our first tastes of the film’s bleak depravity comes from excessive shots of a doggie fly buffet left for Sharon to find, which is a grisly precursor to the relentless nature of the carnage later on. Coupled with a pulse-pounding score, Farrands drags the audience to the edge of their seats. While not particularly gory, those with a weak stomach may have a hard time watching the kills in The Haunting of Sharon Tate because of its brutal depiction of murder, with characters repeatedly stabbed over and over in Caesar’s Ides of March style. Farrands never lets these moments feel excessive though, instead focused on expressing the sudden, ugly nature of murder.
The high-point of Farrands film is not the carnage, though. It’s that, for possibly the first time, we actually get to root for Sharon and her friends in this story. No, the character development isn’t great, and the overall story is lacking, but this is one of the few versions of the story in which we actually see Sharon and her friends get the upper hand on Manson and his cronies. Without spoiling anything, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, in exploring the idea of fate, sets up a narrative which allows both Sharon and the audience to achieve some sort of justice. While we still have a pretty good idea of where this tragic tale is going, it’s refreshing to see Sharon and the others deliver blows back to Manson, which is something we just don’t see much off in other tellings.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate has plenty of flaws, but it is also a poignant film with an ending that is truly haunting, and will leave you contemplating Sharon and her fate for days to come.