There comes a moment in Daniel Farrands’ The Haunting of Sharon Tate where you just sit back and say, “Wow. This is actually happening,” and for those raised on revisionist history movies and/or insanely plotted horror, it’ll work for them. Farrands, who acts as writer and director, goes for broke with so much schlock and inanity that it’s hard not to applaud him for having the chutzpah to think this would all work. You won’t necessarily call the movie good, but The Haunting of Sharon Tate is certainly never boring and is actually an inventive, cathartic tale of revenge that doesn’t never feels as exploitative as you feared it might.
Actress Sharon Tate (Hilary Duff) has returned to Los Angeles to await the birth of her baby. But despite the joyous occasion the actress can’t shake off the feeling that something is wrong. So when a series of mysterious packages start arriving, all from someone named Charlie, Tate finds it hard to convince the others in her life to take things seriously.
It’s hard not to recount this plot without laughing because so much of it is predicated on not knowing what happened to Sharon Tate. Living under a rock is the only way to buy into the movie’s presumed horror and Farrands seems to know the only way this movie works is as a morbid curiosity piece from people who want to see the “other Sharon Tate film” before Once Upon a Time in Hollywood arrives. The film, based on an interview Tate actually gave in 1968, is far more in line with historical fiction than anything passing for fact and that’s immediately evident. Farrands never assumes the audience will buy into Duff as Tate, actually showing real footage of Tate herself. This weird acceptance of the limitations of the biopic narrative format are to be commended. There’s nothing being hidden here, no attempt to dupe the audience. You either roll with it and watch it as a piece of entertainment or you don’t.
We’re introduced to Hilary Duff’s Sharon Tate through grainy mock-film stock that’s the trademark of low-budget movies set in the past. Duff is the main reason to watch The Haunting of Sharon Tate and makes a compelling case for the movie. Farrands and cinematographer Carlo Rinaldi capture Duff with all the sweetness and light you’d expect from Tate. In certain scenes the sun shines and she’s downright angelic. When captured from certain angles the resemblance is pretty damn uncanny, too. Compared to early photos of Margot Robbie in Tarantino’s Tate feature, costume designer Susan Doepner-Senac and makeup/hair stylists Romie Macedo and Lindsey Petersen did their homework and speak to a reverence Farrands and crew have for the material. Duff has the two-tone hair Tate was known for, as well as her trademark eyebrows and long eyelashes. Give them a round of applause for knowing what Tate looked like and honoring that.
As far as Duff’s acting, the actress understands the right tone to strike in every scene. The script wants to set up a world of confusion and mounting dread, making Tate herself no different from Rosemary Woodhouse of Rosemary’s Baby fame. When Tate arrives at her new home she’s disconcerted to see friends/house sitters Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski have effectively taken it over, with rumors swirling about their weird friends. (This movie alludes to Folger and Frykowski having some complicity, but never examines things further.) At one point she calls husband, Roman Polanski, to explain her fears only to be rebuffed. Just like other women in cinema, the world’s most well-known murder victim is told she’s hallucinating. It’s actually a fascinating talking point considering most don’t know what happened to Tate in those three days. If she truly did think something bad was on the horizon, would anyone have believed her? Duff makes her fear and frustration palpable leading up to the confrontation with “the Family” and once the bombastic climax happens you root for Tate not simply because who wouldn’t, but because Duff makes you empathize with her as a a character.
As previously mentioned, Farrands crafts a revisionist take on the material. Despite the weak production values it’s obvious the script attempted to get everything down that audiences might not know, including the inclusion of Tate’s real dog, Dr. Sapirstein. But everything in this movie is fictional, short of the characters themselves, which puts The Haunting of Sharon Tate on par with X-Men: First Class or The Crimes of Grindlewald. Ironically, it’ll be interesting to see how people raised on Tarantino and his own bits of revisionist history will take to this as Farrands doesn’t actively make something exploitative. Tate is never a victim in this movie and is the smartest person in the room. Yes, we see the murder scene repeated here and there but when the climax arrives Tate is actually the film’s action heroine. So you can’t really give this movie grief and then forgive a bigger director like Tarantino (remember this come July).
Duff is the star of this movie and its highlight. The rest of the cast hovers slightly above mediocre. It’s weird that the attention to detail on Duff’s Tate is so accurate and yet Jonathan Bennett’s Jay Sebring will immediately take audiences out. Where Duff attempts to find authenticity in her portrayal of Tate, Bennett seems straight from Central Casting. There’s absolutely nothing to convey he’s Jay Sebring, short of telling the audience he’s a womanizer. And for playing a well-known hairdresser his haircut looks like it’s straight from Great Clips. (Seriously, Google a picture of Jay Sebring’s hair!) Hearst and Szadja are fine as Folger and Frykowski, though Hearst has a tendency to slip into a voice that mimics Sex and the City’s Samantha.
The ending of the movie draws from films like Happy Death Day and the fact that Farrands did it is pretty ballsy, even if the final scenes imply “What if it wasn’t about the Manson murders, but the friends we made along the way.” The Haunting of Sharon Tate is certainly unique and watching it, particularly with a group, is a fun experience. I’m giving this movie a lot of pluses and that’s because it’s a mess of fun. Duff works in spite of how much the rest of the cast doesn’t. It’s memorable in a way that might transcend Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If you’re open to a pulpy, grindhouse throwback that throws history out the window and wants you to cheer for people with a foregone conclusion stamped on them, you’ll have fun.