The devil's work

In which I puzzle over the disquieting trend of alternate histories about the Tate murders.

Is there any sentence more nauseating-slash-reflective of the ceaseless horrors of life in 2019 than “the murder of Sharon Tate is so hot right now”? This year has given us two films about the Tate murders — one more tangentially than the other — and while they vary wildly in terms of quality and their approach to one of the most notorious crimes in Hollywood history, they do oddly seem to be part of a trend. (I suppose we’d need a third Tate film to make this an actual trend, to which I say: please no.) Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose lives intersect with the life of Rick’s neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The Haunting of Sharon Tate is more directly focused on Tate (Hilary Duff) herself, with the actor having nightmare premonitions of her violent fate. Both movies use the Tate murders as a climax — and here’s where I mercilessly spoil them, so stop reading if you plan on seeing either, which I can only half-recommend.

These are alternate histories, so while Once Upon a Time (now in theaters) and Haunting (streaming on Amazon Prime) build up to Tate’s murder, she ultimately survives both films. (It’s a little murkier in the latter, with Tate seemingly stepping into a parallel universe. Don’t think about it too much.) In the Tarantino movie, the Manson murderers decide to pay a visit to Rick’s house first, where they are brutally dispatched by Rick, Cliff, and Cliff’s dog, Brandy. The killers never even make it to the Polanski-Tate residence. In Haunting, they do show up at the right house, but Tate is ready for them, despite the fact that her friends think she’s just being paranoid in her insistence that they’re all doomed. She fights back and all the would-be victims emerge mostly unscathed: Tate, Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett), Abigail Folger (Lydia Hearst), Wojciech Frykowsky (Pawel Szajda), and Steven Parent (Ryan Cargill). So yes, here are two movies that seem to exploit the real-life murder of a pregnant Tate and four others — but she doesn’t die horribly in either. Yay?

It’s a bit more complicated than that. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been criticized for using Tate as a prop; that’s not exactly fair, but it’s true that the film sidelines her to focus on Rick and Cliff. Robbie — who, it should be said, is a very good Sharon Tate aside from the uncanny resemblance — is far from being a co-lead, no matter what her prominent placement on the poster would have you believe. But as my friend Alison Willmore notes in her excellent breakdown of women in Tarantino movies, she also gets one of the film’s loveliest scenes, in which Tate watches herself in The Wrecking Crew and delights in the audience’s warm reception of her performance. And while it’s easy to be critical of the way Once Upon a Time might seem to suggest that two men could have saved Tate from being murdered, that’s not really what it’s saying. Rick and Cliff are comically inept; they stumble into their inadvertent heroism, and while they do save Tate, it’s purely serendipitous. There are valid criticisms to be made when it comes to how the film treats women, but much of the pushback feels misguided.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate, on the other hand, deserves all of the vitriolic response it’s received. Making a horror film about this real-life massacre — and yes, writer-director Daniel Farrands also helmed the thriller The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, which, yikes — is ghoulish and in exceedingly poor taste. But the way the movie engages with the “what if Sharon Tate survived?” thought experiment offers a surprisingly fascinating contrast to the Tarantino version. Here, Tate is an active agent of her own salvation: she’s the one warning her friends about the imminent bloodshed, even if it doesn’t do her much good, and she’s the first to attack Tex (Tyler Johnson), slashing him with a razor. She also gets to bellow a triumphant “fuck you” before finally shooting him in the face. Moreover, it feels significant that while female Manson Family members Patricia “Yellow” Krenwinkel (Fivel Stewart) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Bella Popa) are killed, it’s Tex who is the most dramatically brutalized here. Even without having any sympathy for the Manson murderers, I think it’s fair to experience some discomfort with how gleefully Once Upon a Time in Hollywood relishes Cliff bashing Krenwinkel’s (Madisen Beaty) face into a pulp — particularly given that she’s (allegedly) the second woman he’s killed.

That’s not to say that Haunting is an exciting feminist subversion of the story. First of all, it’s fucking awful. The casting is dreadful: Duff is generally underrated as an actor, but she is not Sharon Tate, and her attempt at mimicking Tate’s voice wavers from scene to scene. But more importantly, it is exploitative to a degree I found repugnant. Before we get to Tate and her friends surviving, we have to endure her nightmare in which the murders play out exactly as they did in real life, including Tate’s heartbreaking cry for her mother as she’s being stabbed to death. There are responsible ways to depict true crime in fiction, but this is just trash, and it’s genuinely uncomfortable to watch. The Haunting of Sharon Tate doesn’t have anything substantial to say about Tate — and for that matter, I don’t think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does either. The Tarantino film is at least entertaining and shies away from anything close to the truth of what happened; the horror film never justifies its existence. Either way, I invite future filmmakers to leave Tate alone: two movies about what might have been is already too many. If you want to pay respect to the real actor, watch Valley of the Dolls instead.

Photo via Saban Films.