I have to admit that I was originally skeptical about The Haunting of Sharon Tate. There are just so many pitfalls to making a movie about an event so ingrained in public consciousness as the murder of Sharon Tate and four other people at the hands of Charles Manson’s followers, not the least of which is the potential to turn a real tragedy into exploitative tripe played for jump scares. I soon realized, though, that while The Haunting of Sharon Tate may not be a perfect film, writer/director Daniel Farrands acknowledges that the events of August 9th, 1969 were horrendous, and he reminds the audience of this by creating an atmosphere of dread and melancholy that permeates the film.
After a somber prologue that shows the aftermath of the murders, the film jumps back to show Tate (played by Hilary Duff) and company in the days leading up to the grizzly killings. She is eight months pregnant and dealing with the absence of husband Roman Polanski, who is in Europe working on a movie. Staying with her are Abigail Folger (Lydia Hearst) and Wojciech Frykowski (Pawel Szajda) friends of Tate and Polanski who seem to be taking up space more than they are providing substantial companionship. She also admits to good friend (and ex-lover) Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett) that she suspects Polanski is having an affair while she is essentially alone waiting for her baby to arrive.
Farrands excels at laying the appropriate groundwork, as it’s clear that he’s done his research. I suppose this should be expected given Farrands’ history of work on epic horror documentaries like Never Sleep Again and Crystal Lake Memories, but what did surprise me was his ability to turn that eye for historical detail into a story with emotional resonance. In the decades since the Manson murders, it’s a narrative that has become something of a pop culture phenomenon with Charles Manson serving as the central focus.
And this is understandable given that Manson’s story, while horrifying, is also compelling. But The Haunting of Sharon Tate reminds us that the victims were real people with equally compelling stories. We get this not just from Farrands’ script, but also in an impressive performance by Hilary Duff. Take, for instance, Tate’s interactions with Polanski. Farrands makes an interesting decision not to actually cast anyone as Polanski in the film. Instead, he’s an unheard voice on the other end of a phone call, and Duff really conveys Tate’s loneliness and isolation without actually having anyone to bounce off of in those scenes.
What also surprised me was the haunting aspect of the film. Sure, there are some of the familiar beats you expect when you go into a movie with “haunting” in the title, including figures hidden in the shadows and stinger-laden jump scares. But where I expected the film to depict Manson as some kind of supernatural entity at the source of the haunting, the focus again stays with Tate and explores themes of fate and reality. As Tate starts getting premonitions of the harrowing events to come, Manson is an ominous figure in the shadows, but the tension from the film comes from Farrands’ ability to toy with our expectations of how the events should play out.
I wouldn’t say The Haunting of Sharon Tate is a perfect film. The references to some of the names and events of the era are a bit heavy handed, and the seams of the CGI effects show in ways that took me out of the movie once or twice. But those flaws can be forgiven in a film that gives me a take on the Manson murders that I didn’t realize I wanted: a story that rather than romanticizing Manson and his followers, instead reminds you that you should be rooting for Tate, even if you know how it ultimately ended fifty years ago.
Movie Score: 3.5/5