Note: This article contains spoilers for a Manson movie that does, for once, take a different approach to the proceedings.
It will be 50 years, come August, since the murders of Sharon Tate and the other people staying at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles. The bloody incident was a body blow to the psyche of well-off white America, a grotesque episode named by the thinkers of the time as the harbinger of the end of the free love ’60s. It was the first of two nights of murders that made Charles Manson and his “family” a lurid sensation. The man, the murders, and the women he brainwashed into committing them, have been the subject of countless films.
In half a century of obsessing over the incident, with Manson himself dead and the generation of filmmakers who actually remember his infamous moment going gray, what is there left to say about the Tate murders and the world they supposedly heralded the ending of? The Haunting of Sharon Tate seems like it wants to say something about getting a do-over after an unthinkable tragedy, or about the plight of a woman coddled and infantilized and ignored, or about an almost mystical quality to its dark antagonist. In casting Hilary Duff of all people, it signals that it wants to say something about the phenomenon of being a pop starlet in our own time. If any of those things are what it’s going for, though, it absolutely does not succeed, and it makes me even less thrilled for the other Manson-sploitation movie coming soon, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
There’s an intriguing kernel of an idea in The Haunting of Sharon Tate, one it would’ve been worth exploring even if it played around with the stories of murdered people whose surviving immediate family members are still very much alive. Because it’s been longer since these murders than the entire lifetime of the average Paste reader, it’s worth it to mention that Tate was a recognizable actor, having won a Golden Globe for her performance in Valley of the Dolls. At the time, she was living in the house she shared with Polanski along with former boyfriend Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger (of the family that owns the coffee company) and Wojciech Frykowski, who was Folger’s boyfriend and a mutual friend of Polanski’s. All were killed that night, along with 18-year-old Steven Parent, who was visiting.
In a (pretty inspired, really) casting choice, Hilary Duff portrays Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski. She’s convincing enough as the actress in voice and manner, but she’s laboring in service to terrible dialogue and a script whose ideas never bother to cohere. In an opening scene that seeks to frame the whole endeavor, Tate sits for an interview wherein she recounts that she has dreamed of the murders a year prior to when they occur. We then jump forward to the days immediately leading up to the fateful night in question.
The idea of Sharon Tate as a woman being managed and shushed and denied agency by her friends and her absent husband is an interesting one I can’t recall seeing in any other portrayals. In one scene, she stumbles across Polanski’s screenplay for Rosemary’s Baby, another pointed portrayal of a captive, doomed woman.
The early scenes try to establish a feeling of slowly mounting dread. Manson drops off his evil-sounding demo tape, which starts playing randomly in the middle of the night to the sleeping house and which, as near as I’m able to tell, actually sample Manson’s not-very-good music. The movie goes so far as to portray the murders playing out to their (not 100% accurate) historical conclusion halfway through the film, and we discover it’s all just another prophetic dream of Sharon’s. There’s the sense that she needs to somehow outwit fate. We know this because in an earlier scene she asks Jay Sebring, out of absolutely nowhere, whether he thinks fate can be altered.
Her efforts to warn her friends of this coming massacre are ignored as pregnancy hysteria, right up until the moment the murders actually start happening. Her pre-knowledge of the event changes the whole course of the incident and—and this is where I repeat the usual spoiler warning—eventually results in a total inversion of it. Sharon and her fellow victims turn the tables and kill the hell out of the Family members.
As sleazy and exploitative as this central concept is, it would at least have been interesting if the movie made more of an attempt to be about it. Instead, the split from historical fact takes up just the last twenty minutes of the movie and isn’t explained or expounded upon. It’s certainly not held up as a power fantasy of a woman breaking away from her inevitable gruesome death, a death that results in part because she’s been railroaded into a house that she owns but does not control, in a marriage with a husband who restricts her even as he’s totally absent, “friends” who won’t even listen to her concerns or let her so much as decorate a nursery.
The half-century fascination with Manson is one that all too often has led to cheap cinema, and the prospect of even more of it now that he’s gone seems as unavoidable as the movie frames the murders. Quentin Tarantino’s late-stage career has served up some unforgettable movies, and it seems as if he is tying the incident, thematically, to the end of its era. What worries me about his insistence that people not spoil the film is the prospect he’ll try the very same trick here, one reminiscent of Inglorious Basterds, in which he took similarly cathartic, gory, ahistorical liberties with the death of Hitler. I wonder whether he can pull something like that off.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate did not pull it off. I don’t know why this movie is if it can’t be bothered to actually be about female disempowerment or a desperate desire to never have seen an end to an era or something. What is so uniquely lurid about this night anymore, and what is so important about it in today’s context? The hippie movement and the psychedelics scare surrounding it are long dead, and the people who killed it are feeding cocaine to our grandparents in the full light of day. Random, senseless, terroristic murder is a daily feature of the American K-12 school system. Every minute of the murders, every scrap of physical evidence, has been gone over dozens of times. The Haunting of Sharon Tate promises some new approach to a gruesome incident that’s been gone over endlessly for half a century, and it manages only to exploit the dead again.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies.