Friday 22 March 2019

The Haunting of Sharon Tate (USA 2019: Dir Daniel Farrands)

Since the infamous nighttime attack at 10050 Cielo Drive, Hollywood, back in August 1969 - when followers of Charles Manson broke into the home of Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate, brutally murdering the heavily pregnant Tate and a party of friends - cinema has had an on/off obsession with Manson and his followers. 1976's two-part TV movie Helter Skelter had Steve Railsback providing a career best (and career haunting) performance as Manson, Wade Williams' 1971 The Other Side of Midnight combined documentary footage and re-enactments to piece together the murders, the 1997 film The Manson Family was a documentary style deconstruction of Manson and his acolytes, and 2009's Manson, My Name is Evil concentrated on 'family' member Leslie van Houten.

Well it seems as if there's life in the story yet - at least Daniel Farrands thinks so. The director - whose CV shows a predilection for movies about real murder, fictional murder, and murders we haven't made our minds up about (Amityville, basically) - dips in to a particularly dodgy nugget of history as inspiration for The Haunting of Sharon Tate. In the May 1970 edition of 'Fate' magazine, celebrity columnist Dick Kleiner wrote an article about a dream experienced by Tate, two years before the Manson commissioned murders, in which she prophesied her own death and that of her ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (also killed by the 'family' that night). And it's this piece of Tate trivia which drives most of the movie.

In fact The Haunting of Sharon Tate opens with the actress having the aforementioned dream, in which she 'sees' in some detail the fate that will befall Sharon and her friends. We then flash forward a couple of years, to a point three days before the murders are set to take place. We learn that her husband is in England working on a film - the unmade The Day of the Dolphin - and Tate, despite being accompanied by her friends (ex- boyfriend Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger), is lonely and increasingly given to paranoid delusions about being watched. Tate also expresses concerns about the fidelity of her husband, and the discovery of a draft script for Rosemary's Baby and a reel to reel tape of Manson's songs in the house's office (which include strange noises) invites the possibility of the absent director's possible collusion in what's to come.

Only buff handyman/caretaker Steven Parent (another actual character from Tate's story, but given considerably more to do here than his real life counterpart) provides the support that Tate needs; and being a bit of a gadget freak he is able to listen to the weird sounds on the Manson tape and work out that it's a form of 'backmasking' - they're actually the words 'Helter' and 'Skelter' but spoken backwards; "it sounds like some kind of chant or mantra," Parent explains, "or the foretelling of a prophesy."

There is a lot of talk about the fates, and different possible futures, which signposts the movie's big twist and odd denoument, and presumably gives some kind of credibility to Tate's visions - the movie even starts with the massively overused Poe quote "Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?" But actually nothing's credible in this movie, from the pedestrian performance of Hilary Duff as Tate, to the awkward intercutting of actual footage of Tate, Polanski and Manson into the reconstructed bulk of the movie.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate is a poorly thought out and extremely distasteful film, with historical scene setting information clumsily shoehorned into the script to add veritas. There was a possibility of saying something interesting about chance vs causality here, but it was never likely to happen under such ham fisted and lacklustre direction. Just plain embarrassing, but there's worse to come; his next movie is a reconstruction of the last days of OJ Simpson's ex-wife, The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate is available to watch on digital download from 8th April 2019.

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