FILM REVIEW – THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE. With Hilary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst, Pawel Szajda, Ryan Cargill. Written and directed by Daniel Farrands. Rated R for strong bloody violence, terror, and some language. 94 minutes.
Horror films have always been transgressive. The fact that we now consider Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” a film classic shouldn’t make us forget what a shocker it was when it was released in 1960. Such films violate our social norms either by making icons of their bloody protagonists or by depicting violence or gore or by making us feel less safe in our surroundings. In that sense, THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE is very much in that tradition.
Tate, of course, was the young actress who was married to international filmmaker Roman Polanski and pregnant with their child when she and four other people were savagely murdered at the direct order of cult leader Charles Manson by four of his acolytes.
Writer/director Daniel Farrands, known primarily for documentaries on horror series such as “Friday The 13th,” “Nightmare On Elm Street,” and “Scream,” has crafted a slick and disturbing movie based the report that long before her death, Tate had a premonition about the murders. Over the course of 90-or-so minutes, Tate (played by one-time teen star Hilary Duff) experiences the home invasion by Manson (Ben Mellish) and his gang more than once. When the actual attack occurs, Farrands takes the story in an unexpected direction, providing an unconventional conclusion to a story where we already knew how it had to turn out.
Getting Duff for the lead is something of a minor casting coup. Known for her run as “Lizzie McGuire,” and later on “Younger,” this is her first foray into horror. She plays Tate as a considerate if someone shallow young actress, whose marriage to Polanski has raised her profile. She’s troubled by her visions and concerned about the forthcoming baby. It’s a credible performance.
Had this been a film about fictional characters, it might attract some notice among horror fans, as well as some curiosity seekers interested in Duff in an unexpected role. However, it’s not. It’s about the victims of one of the most sensational crimes of the 20th century. It’s not only in living memory but several family members – including Polanski and Tate’s sister – are still alive. Instead of being just a horror movie it becomes yet another wound, using the actress’s tragic death as fodder for cheap thrills.
Farrand knows the beats of the horror films he’s patterned this on, and it could be argued that his focus is on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Manson may be a monster, but the film isn’t about him the way, say, the “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies are about the fictional Freddy Krueger. Still, there are times when one must question whether a film goes too far, even in a genre noted for pushing the boundaries.
The result is that “The Haunting Of Sharon Tate” works as a conventional horror film with a twist, but some will find that by using a real life story rather than borrowing some elements for a fictional one, it leaves a bad taste. Farrand doesn’t seem concerned, though. His next movie, currently in post-production, is “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.