The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019)

*. For some reason, and I don’t think it’s as obvious as it might seem, the Manson family murders have long held a special fascination for filmmakers. Maybe, because of the industry connections, it’s seen as a story that’s somehow “about” the dark side of Hollywood. Whatever the reason, there have been plenty of films on the subject, ranging from the 1976 made-for-TV docudrama Helter Skelter to Wolves at the Door, Manson’s Lost Girls, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The last mentioned being a movie having a lot in common with The Haunting of Sharon Tate, especially with regard to the mystical connection they draw between life and (bad) movies.
*. The idea here is that Sharon Tate has dreams of being murdered in the manner that she actually was murdered, along with several of her friends, in 1969. Forewarned is forearmed, and in this telling of the story she manages to escape her fate and turn the tables on the murderous hippie crew, killing them in turn.
*. I think there may have been a point writer-director Daniel Farrands was trying to make here, I’m just not sure what it was. Something about dreams as either premonitions or windows into an alternate reality? Or maybe it’s not dreams so much as movies that provide such a window or escape.
*. An epigraph from Poe asks “Is all that we see or seem / but a dream within a dream?” As with almost every epigraph to a movie that I’ve ever seen, this is an almost totally meaningless flourish. I take it as nothing more than a wave of the hand at the question of what is real.
*. A more fruitful entry point is in the bit of poolside dialogue between Tate (Hilary Duff) and friend Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett). Tate begins by asking: “Do you think it’s possible to alter the course of our fate, or is our story just our book, written before we were even born?” That is not a particularly deep reflection, but credit to Duff for delivering it with a straight face. This is more than Bennett is able to manage in his response: “I like to think that anything’s possible. And I think that there’s infinite choices, infinite realities. We’re probably living out different versions of our own story, for, who knows?, probably forever. At least until we get it right. I guess in moviespeak it means we can rewrite our own scripts. But I think no matter which road we choose, we always arrive at the same place.”
*. There are a couple of observations I’d make about this. In the first place, it’s a bit of dialogue that is repeated at the end of the movie so I guess Farrands thought it was important, and possibly even profound. You may judge that for yourself. To my mind, the idea that we can choose between infinite possibilities and write our own script but still end up in the same place seems contradictory.
*. Second, I mentioned how Duff at least keeps a straight face while Bennett does not. I think they both deliver atrocious performances, but in their defence they are playing characters who are not supposed to be that bright. Tate was also a bad actor, so what would a good performance by someone playing a bad actor look like? This? Margot Robbie did more with a lot less, and Leonardo DiCaprio was better playing an even more pathetic thespian.
*. That problem of how to fairly judge such matters is one I wrestled with a lot watching this movie. On the one hand, it’s a very bad home-invasion horror flick. Clich├ęs abound, both visual and narrative. Scary stuff happens and then Sharon wakes up screaming. There are lots of shlocky jump scares and even more shlocky jump cuts. There’s some CGI work that is laughably bad (just look at the swarm of flies around the dead dog, or the blood flying from the victims). So it is a bad movie. But then I wondered if the point was that we were supposed to see Tate as someone (a real historical person? a celebrity brand like Hilary Duff?) trapped in a bad movie. There were even a couple of moments when I thought they were going to break the fourth wall and really open things up, but that didn’t happen.
*. Instead, we’re left with an ending that I found to be a cop out. Tate and her friends really are dead, but they are also shown smiling and walking away from the crime scene. Are they ghosts? They can’t be inhabitants of a parallel reality because then the overlap wouldn’t make sense. Or is this only a Hollywood ending, of the kind you might expect in the bad movie they were just part of? Is that supposed to be Tate walking off into a celebrity afterlife, or Duff?
*. I don’t think there are answers to any of these questions because I don’t think the film was that well thought out. But I didn’t hate it as much as most reviewers did. Exploiting a real-life tragedy for cheap thrills didn’t offend me, though I was uncomfortable with watching a very pregnant woman being terrorized for 90 minutes. But what was the point of all this? Perhaps I’m missing some deeper irony, but I think it’s more likely that it was just a bad idea from the start.

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