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The Haunting of Sharon Tate Movie Review

L.A. Gory

Quick question: have you read Helter Skelter, former LA District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi's account of 1969's Tate-LaBianca murders, and his subsequent prosecution of Charles Manson and his ragtag "family" for the killings? If no, go read it. If yes, go read it again. Either way, you don't need to see "The Haunting of Sharon Tate."

With his latest release, writer/director Daniel Farrands ("The Amityville Murders") once again grafts speculative fiction onto a famous true crime case, this time killing of actress Sharon Tate. Tate was married to famed director Roman Polanski and eight and a half months pregnant when she and three friends plus a bystander were brutally murdered during the home invasion that terrorized the Los Angeles community in August of 1969. As was the case with the so-called Amityville Murders, there are already countless media representations of the Manson family's crimes. There is also the aforementioned comprehensive, sober, excruciatingly fact-based account by Mr. Vincent Bugliosi, which should arguably be considered the last word on this best-known chapter of the Manson saga.

And yet, now we have "The Haunting of Sharon Tate," a fancifully grisly technicolor exploration of the doomed actress's final days that serves up a gratuitously unpleasant viewing experience and never makes a successful case for its own existence. That said, those willing to give any artistic endeavor the benefit of the doubt will note that "Haunting" starts off innocuously enough, as we are introduced to Sharon (Hilary Duff, Younger) via a plausible black & white recreation of the sort of fluffy interviews that press staged with Tate as her career was on the rise. Ms. Duff does resemble the late actress, and she ably mimics the latter's sweet, slightly breathy cadence as she ponders the role of predestination and fate in her life.

Cinematographer Carlo Rinaldi has an eye for the sunbleached aesthetic of late 60s Los Angles, and he effectively sets the story with sweeping establishing shots of the exclusive Benedict Canyon neighborhood where Tate and Polanski were renting a house at the time of the murders. The lofty enclave is framed as a sort of Olympus not reachable by mere mortals; but the almost immediate introduction of contemporary newsreel footage and graphic crime scene photos indelibly pierces that illusion.

"Haunting" quickly backtracks to present its take on the days leading up to the crime. Sharon returns from Europe to await the birth of her baby while husband Roman stays behind to work on a script, and friends Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett, "The Last Sharknado: It's About Time"), Abigail Folger (Lydia Hearst), and Wojciech Frykowsky (Pawel Szajda) join her at the house to see to her needs as she nests. But worries cloud the sunny skies: Sharon suspects that Roman is having an affair. The constant presence of her friends feels oppressive. And a creepy guy keeps finding his way past the gate at the end of the driveway, knocking on the door in search of a former resident and leaving behind packages of reel-to-reel tapes of his weird music. Someone thinks that his name might be Charlie...

To recount the actual story of the murders here would be a waste of time, both because it can be easily gleaned from a side trip to Wikipedia, and because "Haunting" quickly departs from it - but not before working up to a brief but gut-wrenching recreation of the brutal dispatching of the victims by nameless home invaders. The most widely circulated Manson crime scene images are the black & white photos in Helter Skelter, reproduced with portions of the images blanked out. "Haunting" pulls back that curtain and splashes the results full-color on the screen, in real time. The results are shocking, tasteless, and sad.

The film again doubles back on itself and offers alternate versions of the crime, each as imprudent as the initial recreation. We see Sharon as a fretful paranoiac, and then a heroic avenger. By the time she's crouched in a trailer in the backyard with caretaker Steven Parent (Ryan Cargill), who was in life another victim of the murders and here presented as an amalgam with survivor and early suspect William Garretson, any semblance of respect for the truth has long since departed. Matters further devolve as the two ponder conspiracy theories and demonic influences, even unearthing the old standby of hidden messages and "backward masking" in Charlie's creepy music tapes that seem to play by themselves in the middle of the night. This is a story that in no way supports supernatural tropes, and to have them suddenly dropped in gives the impression of wandering off into a completely different screenplay.

Mr. Farrands is a solid director, but "Haunting" is an ill-conceived outing that's further torpedoed by bad writing (characters awkwardly exposit their own backstories, leading Abigail to announce herself as the "Folger coffee heiress" and Steven to muse, "I guess I'm just a guy from El Monte who left home and works part time in a radio repair shop to save up enough money for college") and a tone-deaf sensibility that ham-fistedly grafts 20 minutes of what feels like a modern slasher movie onto the already questionable retelling of a well-known American tragedy. With this turn the film abandons any attempt to portray its characters as the real people they were, instead shifting them around heedlessly like players on a giant chessboard as an imaginary alternate outcome warrants.

In the end, "The Haunting of Sharon Tate" doesn't offer any greater understanding of the events it portrays. On the contrary, it muddies the waters and flirts with victim-blaming by theorizing that Tate had premonitions of her fate that she could have acted on, or that she could have found a way to fight back against her attackers - an absurd premise for a woman in the eighth month of pregnancy - and thus saved herself and her friends. It's a terrible disservice to imply such things, or to speculate that those murdered by the Manson family were anything other than victims of bad luck and terrible intentions. No portentous supernatural framing is needed to make the real story of the death of Sharon Tate more horrifying than it already is.



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