PSA: Hilary Duff Played Sharon Tate in A Straight-To-Video Manson Movie
GARAGE takes a look back at the film, which was released this month to little fanfare.
"The Haunting of Sharon Tate" screengrab via IMDb.
On the 6 th of August 1969, the actress Sharon Tate was found dead in her home on Cielo Drive, Los Angeles, eight months pregnant and heavily bloodied. A nylon rope, one end tied to the rafters and another to her dead male friend, was looped around her neck. Boastfully, the killers said that as she bled out, she called three times for her mother. It seems unnecessary to offer the Manson Family any more publicity by detailing the names of the four members who killed Tate and her three friends at Cielo Drive, especially as publicity was exactly what they wanted; still, the sickness of the crime itself is hard to overstate. It was in Hollywood, and it was Hollywood-like in its excess, but it was not like the movies.
At least, until now — fifty years later, give or take a few months, Tate is played first by the arch-millennial and former Disney star Hilary Duff, then by the Oscar-winning Australian actress Margot Robbie, in two films about her death released this year. The latter, the absurdly-punctuated Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, will be in cinemas this summer, and is the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino. The fact that Tarantino's take looks set to be the least salacious ought to be an indication of the tone of the Duff movie, which comes out this month on VOD, and has a title more like something from the producers of Insidious than a film inspired by true, uneasy crimes: The Haunting of Sharon Tate.
The film, which claims to be “based on the story of Sharon Tate’s dreams and the Manson Family nightmare,” is inspired by reports that in the months before her death, the actress had a dream about the Manson killings. Tate’s own sister, Debra, maintains that all such reports are false. “I know for a fact she did not have a premonition, awake or in a dream,” she said last year in People magazine.“It’s classless how everyone is rushing to release something for the 50th anniversary of this horrific event.”
The Haunting of Sharon Tate, which is both written and directed by Daniel Farrands, has presumably been rushed a little more than Tarantino’s effort, and did not have its $95,000,000 budget. What it does have is Jonathan Bennett, the actor best known for playing Lindsay Lohan’s crush in Mean Girls, and a dreamy set of camera filters that approximate a Lana Del Rey video. Nobody, mercifully, is tasked with appearing as Roman Polanski, and Polanski’s childhood friend Wojciech Frykowski is at least played by a genuinely Polish actor, Pawel Szajda. It is camp and kitsch, and it begins with the discovery of the mutilated bodies of its crucial players, making it the strangest and most lurid marriage between tone and subject since the last outrageous pairing of real death, a Disney star and a too-cute and too-flip tone to scandalise the internet: the trailer for Zack Efron’s forthcoming Ted Bundy film.
After the carnage, we flash back to Duff and Bennett — who plays Tate’s ex-lover and best friend Jay Sebring — pulling up at 1050 Cielo Drive in a convertible, only to find Frykowski and his girlfriend house-sitting. A strange man (“Charlie something?”, says Frykowski) turns up at the door one night, holding a package. Inside is an audio reel; on the reel, a song. In the spare room of the ranch, Tate soon discovers fifteen or so duplicates, delivered in her absence. “Pretty girl,” we hear Charles Manson croon when the thing plays itself, like L.A., in the middle of the night, “pretty pretty girl, cease to exist…submission is a gift.”
We know that Tate — along with Seybring and Frykowski, and Frykowski’s sometime-girlfriend, the coffee heiress Abigail Folger — should cease to exist in the film’s last act, which makes Farrands’ decision to devote the final thirty minutes to a fantasy where all the real-life victims live and all the killers die sick rather than affecting. The Haunting of Sharon Tate is either brave or batshit enough to suggest that the existence of parallel worlds might lead to Tate existing as a kind of Schrödinger’s Babe, both alive and dead, examining her body at the crime scene. Braver or more batshit still, the movie posits that Tate was already tuned in to some psychic slipstream, picking up on inter-dimensional shockwaves. “Is life just some random series of coincidences?” she asks, moonily. “Or is there some greater plan, some higher purpose for all of us? Don’t you ever think about how our smallest decisions can change the course of everything?”
If the sight of Sharon Tate gazing at her own lifeless body is meant to recall, say, Meshes of the Afternoon, it doesn’t. The Haunting of Sharon Tate is closer to Repulsion as a Lifetime movie, or Rosemary’s Baby made for Netflix on a shoestring; and although Polanski is a bastard and a criminal, he is also a genius, making his signature air of elevated female suffering as hard to emulate as it is to excuse. Ethics, murky whenever a real crime ends up onscreen or adapted for a novel, are far trickier in cases where the family of the victim is still living, and where the affected group is small enough that any version of the story cannot help but feel too intimate to bear. True, in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino changed the course of everything so that in that film’s universe, Hitler did not die by his own hand but by murder. It does not seem likely, or especially wise, for him to pull the same trick with the Manson Family; a crime with seventeen million victims is arguably closer to being historic, public property than one with only five.
Casting, in any film based on true crime, can help. It does not help much here. The real-life Sharon Tate, mourned because of her sweet, empyrean vibes as well as the dark nature of her death, is striking in films like The Fearless Vampire Killers or The Valley of the Dolls because she appears at once like a quintessential sixties beauty and like no other screen actress of her time. She feels irreplaceable, destined to die young and be crystallised. Hilary Duff, who I am most familiar with from her appearance in the publishing-world sitcom Younger, is her own variety of beautiful and likeable, but also has an inescapably contemporary quality that makes her costumes feel like costumes, and her psychic musings sound less as though she is tuning into what Joan Didion described as the “demented and seductive vortical tension” of 1969 L.A. than as though she is reading out loud from her horoscope on Broadly — as in Brandy Jensen’s viral tweet about Jessica Biel, she has a face that undoubtedly knows about text messaging. This face has two moods: a wide, dazzling smile, and a completely terrifying scowl. Where Sharon Tate was popular in part because as Dylan once sang about Edie Sedgwick, she appeared to make love like a woman but break like a little girl, a Google search for “Hilary Duff thicc” throws up 84,100 results.
The film’s most interesting decision as far as its casting is concerned is the presence of Lydia Hearst, the daughter of the kidnapped heiress who briefly became a radical domestic terrorist, Patricia Hearst. Lydia, who plays Abigail, cannot help but remind the viewer of her mother’s later, equally-iconic crime: another merging of a famous female icon and politicised, simmering violence, ending in a body count higher than zero. Did Farrands mean to remind us? It’s unclear. A joke that tells itself: his next film, currently in post-production, is The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.