What if the Manson Family and quantum physics collided? What if reality as we know it is just one thread in a tapestry of timelines that play out what would have happened if different decisions were made, alternate routes taken? What if fate is for quitters? What if Sharon Tate fought back the night of August 9, 1969, when she and four others were killed by members of Manson’s cult in the Benedict Canyon home she was renting?
Answers to these questions—or attempts at answers, at least—can be found in writer/director Daniel Farrands’s goofily nihilistic The Haunting of Sharon Tate, which may be the most openly philosophical B-horror flick of all time. Its Sharon Tate (Hilary Duff), whose last three days alive are interpreted in the movie as a spiral of terror as she is stalked by Charles Manson and his followers, regularly ponders the nature of the universe in elliptical conversations with her confidante Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett). “Is life just some random series of coincidences?” she wonders. “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?” And later: “Do you think that we are slaves to our own destiny?”
I’m not sure what the answer is, but that former child actor/attempted pop star Hilary Duff is playing Sharon Tate in a movie does suggest that absolutely anything is possible. Duff, bless her heart, is really trying here, affecting aristocracy in an over-seasoned attempt to replicate Tate’s faint Jackie Kennedy-esque old New York/New England speech pattern (if Tate’s speech contained a pinch of Old Bay, Duff heaps tablespoons on every sentence). Duff’s eyebrows are so intricately knit that you can practically see the purls, and her pauses aren’t so much pregnant as constipated. She’s never, not for a second, convincing as Tate, but she’s definitely always doing an impression of... some person.
It’s wild that the reliably chipper Duff has been tapped to play an icon of grace and ambient sadness like Tate, but it’s not even the craziest thing about The Haunting of Sharon Tate. Spoilers ahead. No, it outdoes itself by rendering the final days of Tate and her guests at the Cielo Drive house she was renting as a series of jump scares that culminates with the invasion of the Manson Family, who instead of murdering Tate and her crew get murdered themselves by their would-be victims. That’s right, in a unified front, Tate, Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski (Pawel Szajda), Abigail Folger (Lydia Hearst), and Steven Parent (Ryan Cargill) wrestle their collective fate away from reality for the sake of a revenge narrative that climaxes with a severely under-lit Duff howling “Fuck you!!!” before shooting Tex Watson (Tyler Johnson) in the face.
Conceptually, this is off the wall. The Haunting of Sharon Tate irreverently probes tragedy that does not invite the least bit of irreverence. The idea of grafting a real-life massacre onto horror movie subgenre templates like home-invasion, slasher, and revenge, and then twisting that story further into a fantasy, is undoubtedly in bad taste—this is an exploitation movie with an authentically ’70s nasty streak that’s as impressive in its audacity as it is repellant. It has the retro charm of cyanide-laced Tylenol. Farrands (who also wrote the script for Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers) was inspired to create a premonition-addled Tate by a supposed vision she reportedly had two years before her actual murder in the form of a dream of a home invasion that resulted in the murder of Sebring. (From what I can tell, this anecdote was reported after her death, and she referred to it as a psychic experience, though the ability to identify it as such would have greatly been facilitated by her own murder. So the supposed inspiration for this flick is itself dubious.)
The Haunting of Sharon Tate’s morality is askew, but you know, I didn’t hate it. It plays like a competent slasher, and Farrands piles on the dread (there’s a mirror scare, a subliminal-messages-in-Manson’s music scare, an ice-machine-noise scare), so that the movie becomes something close to suffocating. Taking it in as just another horror flick, though, requires suspending whatever you feel (and, for that matter, know) about the Mason Family and Tate’s murders. The movie teases you with context and rips its action away from it, and owddly enough, adds a narrative component to this sort cutting of reality into ribbons by giving Tate a series of nightmares to endure (including one in which the Manson family’s invasion goes off more or less as it actually occurred, I guess so that anyone looking to watch a straightforward recreation of the actually murders wasn’t disappointed). As Duff’s Tate emerges from these prophesying dreams, shots of them intercut with her waking life and her grasp loosens on reality.
It’d be almost impressive if there were a point here beyond cheap murder thrills. It’s an oft-repeated cultural observation that the Manson Family’s murders effectively ended the ’60s (perhaps most famously made by Joan Didion), but Farrands never contends with the potential ramifications of what would happen if the Manson Family hadn’t struck fear in the hearts of Americans. Would people go on not locking their doors? Would we all be living on one big coast-to-coast commune and dropping acid instead of working? Would his movie cease to exist? The Haunting of Sharon Tate, see, has a few more ideas than your average B-grade horror flick, but ultimately, it has no clue.