The TSL’s Grindhouse: The Haunting of Sharon Tate (dir by Daniel Farrands)


The Haunting of Sharon Tate is a frustrating film to review.

On the one hand, it’s an undeniably well-made horror film.  It’s surprisingly well-paced.  It creates an atmosphere of nonstop dread.  It’s the type of movie that makes you keep an eye on the shadows in the room.  This is the type of movie that makes your heart race and leaves you uneasy about every unexpected noise that you hear.  It’s a dark and disturbing horror film and it features an excellent lead performance from Hillary Duff in the title role.  While watching the film, you care about her and you don’t want anything bad to happen to her.  That makes the film’s shocks and scares all the more frightening.

On the other hand, though, The Haunting of Sharon Tate features a premise that will leave even the most dedicated grindhouse horror fan feeling more than a bit icky.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate is hardly the first horror film to be based on the infamous Manson murders.  In fact, it’s not even the only one to be released this year.  We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Tate murders so last May saw the release of Charlie Says and Quentin Tarantino’s highly-anticipated Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is set to be released in July.  What sets The Haunting of Sharon Tate apart from the other Manson films is that it’s told totally from the point-of-view of Manson’s victims.  Manson is only seen briefly and the other members of his so-called “Family” wander through the movie like dead-eyed zombies.  This is the rare Manson film that doesn’t try to portray that grubby little racist hippie as being some sort of outlaw folk hero and, regardless of what you think of the rest of the film, that’s definitely a good thing.

Instead, this movie focuses on Sharon Tate.  The film opens with a black-and-white recreation of an interview that Sharon gave a year before her murder, in which she discusses whether or not dreams can tell the future.  We then jump forward to August of 1969.  Sharon is 8-months pregnant and staying at 10050 Cielo Drive.  Her husband, Roman Polanski (who is kept off-screen for the entire movie), is in Europe.  Staying with Sharon is her ex-boyfriend, Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett) and her friends, heiress Abigail Folger (played by real-life heiress Lydia Hearst) and Abigail’s boyfriend, Wojciech Frykowsky (Pawel Szajda).  Also on the property is caretaker Steve Parent (Ryan Cargill), who is staying in a trailer and enjoys working on electronics.

(For the most part, the film sticks to the generally established facts when it comes to depicting the friendship between Sharon, Jay, Abigail, and Fykowsky.  However, it takes a lot of liberties with its portrayal of Steve Parent.  As opposed to how he’s portrayed in the film, Parent was actually an 18 year-old friend of the property’s caretaker who, because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, became the first victim of the Tate murders.  By most accounts, he never met Sharon or any of the other inhabitants of the main house.)

In the film, Sharon is haunted by premonitions.  She has dreams in which she sees her friends being murdered by feral human beings.  She gets disturbing phone calls and she hears weird voices talking about someone named Charlie.  Her friends keep telling her that the nightmares are just a result of the stress that she’s under but Sharon is convinced that they’re a warning.  (Oddly, some of the scenes in which her friends dismiss her concerns are reminiscent of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.)  After an hour of build up, the Family finally arrives at Ceilo Drive and, because of her dreams, Sharon is ready for them and able to fight back.  Or is she?  Can history be changed? the film asks, Or has our fate already been determined?

So, here’s the good thing about The Haunting of Sharon Tate:  It’s clearly on Sharon’s side.  It doesn’t glorify Manson and his family.  Hilary Duff gives a touching and, at times, heart-breaking performance as Sharon Tate and the film holds her up as a symbol of hope, optimism, kindness, and everything else that was lost as a result of Manson’s crimes.  The film itself is well-directed and genuinely scary and the final shot is haunting.

Here’s the bad thing about The Haunting of Sharon Tate:  It may be well-made but it’s still exploiting a real-life tragedy, one in which six people lost their lives.  (That’s not counting all of the other murders that Manson ordered.)  To be honest, if the film was called The Haunting of Jessica Smith, I probably wouldn’t have any reservations about recommending it to horror fans.  Instead, it’s called The Haunting of Sharon Tate and that makes it very hard to watch the film with a clear conscience.  Do the film’s technical strengths make up for the film’s inherent ickiness?  That’s the question that every viewer will have to ask and answer for themselves.

I will say this: I do think that The Haunting of Sharon Tate is a thousand times better than something like Wolves At The Door, in which Sharon was portrayed with all the depth of a Friday the 13th summer camp counselor.  The Haunting of Sharon Tate left me feeling feeling frightened, disturbed, and, because of my struggle to reconcile the film’s technical strengths with its morally dubious premise, more than a little annoyed.  It also left me mourning for Sharon Tate and every other victim of Manson and his brainwashed gang of zombies.  Is the film a tribute to Sharon or a crass exploitation of her memory?  At times, it seems to be both which is one reason why it’s such a frustrating film.

Well-made and problematic to the extreme, The Haunting of Sharon Tate is as close to a modern grindhouse film as we’re going to get in today’s antiseptic age.  Whether or not that’s a good enough reason to sit through it is a question that each viewer will have to decide for themselves.

Let’s Talk About The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (dir by Anthony C. Ferrante)


Yesterday was Sharknado Day.

What is Sharknado Day?  If you have to ask, you’ll never understand.  Sharknado Day is the day that the latest chapter in The Asylum’s Sharknado franchise premieres on SyFy.  That’s the day when people like me cause twitter to go over capacity tweeting about the film.  That’s the day good people all across America try to count the number of celebrity cameos while also trying to keep track of all of the homages and references to past movies that are always waiting to be found in every Sharknado Film.  Yesterday was the sixth Sharknado Day since 2013 and, if we’re to believe our friends at The Asylum, it was also the last Sharknado Day.

Is it true?  Was The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time truly the final Sharknado?  Perhaps.  But somehow, I have a feeling that the flying sharks will return someday.  Critics have always underestimated the production savvy of The Asylum and I wouldn’t be shocked if, after a year or two of nostalgia, we saw Sharknado 7: A New Beginning.

But if The Last Sharknado was truly the final Sharknado, then it can be said that the franchise truly went out on a high note.

The plot — well, usually, the conventional wisdom is that the plot of a Sharknado movie really doesn’t matter.  Usually, it’s assumed that all a Sharknado film needs is a lot of shark mayhem and snarky humor.  And that’s true, to an extent.  And yet, I still found myself getting caught up in The Last Sharknado‘s storyline.  It all deals with Fin (Ian Ziering), April (Tara Reid), the head of a robot version of April (again, Tara Reid), Nova (Cassandra Scerbo), and Skye (Vivica A. Fox) traveling through time, hopping from period to period.  Fin and April’s goal is to stop the first Sharknado and to save the life of their son, Gil.  Nova wants to save the life of her grandfather, even though that might change history to the extent that she would never become a great shark hunter.  As for the robot head … well, she develops an agenda of her own, one that really has to be seen to be believed.

The film has a lot of time travel and, of course, the journey from period to period allows for several celebrity cameos.  When Fin ends up in Arthurian Britain, Neil deGrasse Tyson pops up as Merlin.  During the Revolutionary War, a somewhat sarcastic General Washington is played by Darrell Hammond.  Dee Snider plays a sheriff in the old west.  Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott show on the beach in the 60s.  Touchingly, the film even finds a way to include the late John Heard in the action.  (Heard played a key supporting role in the first Sharknado.)  I’m a history nerd, so I enjoyed all of the time travel.  I especially enjoyed the film’s portrayal of Benjamin Franklin as a rather bitchy eccentric, largely because it’s often forgotten that Franklin was, in real life, a bit of a bitchy eccentric.

(Add to that, how can you resist a film the features both dinosaurs and flying sharks?)

The film takes a surprisingly dark turn during the second hour, as Fin and Skye spend some time in a dystopian future and Nova tries to change history by saving her grandfather’s life.  When Fin points out that doing so will change history and that, for Nova to become a great shark hunter, her grandfather has to die, Nova calls him out for being self-centered.  To their credit, both Cassie Scerbo and Ian Ziering play the argument totally straight and both give heartfelt performances.  Amid all of the comedy and the shark-related mayhem, the film develops a real heart.

That heart is at the center of The Last Sharknado.  To a large extent, the sharks are superfluous.  They’re carnivorous MacGuffins.  Instead, the film is about celebrating not only the bonds between Fin, April, Nova, and all of their friends but also the bond that’s been developed between the characters and those of us who have watched them over the course of six films.  Towards the end of the film, when Fin talks about what his friends and family mean to him, it’s clear that he’s also speaking for the filmmakers.  Just as Fin thanks his friends for sticking with him, the filmmakers take the time to thank the audience for sticking with them.  It was a heartfelt scene and it was the perfect way to end The Last Sharknado.

To those who do not celebrate Sharknado Day, it may seem strange to say that I got emotional while watching the final scene of The Last Sharknado on Sunday night.  Then again, is it any stranger than the idea of a franchise about a bunch of sharks flying through the air, spinning around in a funnel, becoming a major pop cultural milestone?

It’s a strange world and we’re all the better for it.

Lifetime Film Review: Mommy, I Didn’t Do It (dir by Richard Gabai)


If there’s an Eye Rolling Hall of Fame, the recent Lifetime film Mommy, I Didn’t Do It definitely has earned inclusion.

Seriously, this film was full of some championship-level eye rolling.  It’s a courtroom drama and a murder mystery.  Ellen Plainview (Danica McKellar) is an attorney whose teenager daughter, Julie (Paige Searcy) is on trail for murdering one of her former teachers.  When Julie is first arrested, Ellen rolls her eyes.  When Ellen visits Julie in jail and explains that they don’t have the money to bail her out, Julie rolls her eyes and sighs.  You can just tell she’s thinking, “My God, mom, you’re so lame!”  When Detective Hamer (Jaleel White) explains why all the evidence points to Julie, Ellen again rolls her eyes and Detective Hamer counters her by rolling his own eyes.  When Ellen approaches the dead man’s wife (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), the wife not only rolls her eyes but narrows them as well.

It gets even better once the trial begins.  The prosecutor, Kimberly Bains (Jen Lilley), rolls her eyes whenever Ellen makes an objection.  Whenever a witness testifies that Julie was obsessed with the victim, Ellen rolls her eyes and then Julie rolls her eyes at her mother rolling her eyes and then Kimberly rolls her eyes at both of them.  When the weird boy who is obsessed with her tries to save Julie by confessing to the murder, the amount of eye rolling probably sets a world record.  In the real world, of course, this type of courtroom behavior gets people cited for contempt but, in the world of Lifetime, it’s just the way that people communicate.

Don’t get me wrong.  The film itself did not make me roll my eyes.  Yes, it was totally implausible and it was full of silly scenes but it’s a Lifetime film.  That’s what we expect Lifetime.  Even more importantly, that’s what we want from Lifetime.  When it comes to a quality Lifetime film, there’s really only two rules: 1) the more ludicrous, the better and 2) the more melodramatic, the more entertaining.

While the film’s story might be ludicrous, the mother-daughter relationship between Ellen and Julie felt very real and both Danica McKellar and Paige Searcy gave sincere and believable performances as mother and daughter, which went a long way towards explaining all the eye rolling.  Seriously, when I was Julie Plainview’s age, I rolled my eyes for 24 hours a day and I wasn’t even accused of murder.

Mommy, I Didn’t Do It is actually a sequel to a previous Lifetime movie, The Wrong Woman.  In that one, Ellen was wrongly accused of murder and was arrested by the same idiot detective who arrests her daughter in Mommy, I Didn’t Do It.  (If nothing else, these two films show how vindictive authority figures can be.)  As long as this is going to be a franchise, I’d like to suggest that the next installment could feature Eric Roberts, recreating his role from Stalked By My Doctor and its sequel. Maybe he could treat Julie while Ellen defend him in court.

Seriously, it sounds like a great idea to me.

 

Back to School #65: Mean Girls (dir by Daniel Waters)


Mean Girls Poster

Mean Girls is a film that has a lot of nostalgic importance for me.  It came out when I was a senior in high school and it was the last film that I saw before I graduated.  So, for me, Mean Girls always brings back memories of the excitement of knowing that my “real” life was about begin.  When I watch it or think about it, I’m always transported back to that time when the future seemed limitless.  I knew I was going to go to college, I was going to meet the love of my life, and I was going to have a great time doing it.  Thoughts of Mean Girls transports me back to one of the most exciting times of my life and, for that reason, I like to think of it.

Add to that, Mean Girls happens to still be a pretty funny and perceptive movie.

One thing that I do always find interesting about films like Mean Girls and 10 Things I Hate About You is that, even though they may be critical of the traditions of high school, they all seem to be taking place in the type of idealized high school that we all wish that we could have attended.  These high schools are always huge with brightly colored walls and quick-witted students who never have a bad hair day.  The rich, popular kids are always so clever with the way that they express their disdain.  And even the outcasts are still pretty good-looking.  Even more importantly, the outcasts are always so sarcastic and political.  They don’t just accept their outcast status.  Instead, they spend all of their spare time plotting ways to overthrow the system.  Perhaps best of all, all of the various cliques have such clever nicknames.

From my experience, most public high schools aren’t actually like this.  Then again, I went to high school in Texas and most of these films were made in California so maybe it’s just a west coast thing.  The important thing about a film like Mean Girls is that, even though it takes place in a heightened reality, there’s still enough reality that anyone watching it can relate to the film’s story.

(It’s been my experience that even real life mean girls love Mean Girls, mostly because I think everyone assumes that in high school, they were one of the clever, sarcastic outcasts, regardless of whether they actually were.)

In Mean Girls, the popular clique is nicknamed the Plastics and they’re led by Regina George (Rachel McAdams).  New student Cady  (Lindsay Lohan) is the latest member of the clique but what the Plastics do not suspect is that Cady is actually an infiltrator who has been recruited by outcasts Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese) to take down the Plastics from the inside.  However, as Cady goes out of her way to destroy Regina’s reputation and turn the rest of the school against her, she soon discovers that she’s running the risk of becoming just as mean as Regina…

Mean Girls is a comedy but, at its center, there rests a very important message about the need for people to not … well, to not be mean.  That may seem like a simplistic message and I guess it is.  But it’s still a good message to get out.  The script by Tina Fey is both clever and funny, deftly mixing the message with the comedy.  Finally, the film has a great cast, with Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams as stand-outs and great supporting turns from Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert, and Tim Meadows.

Thanks for the memories, Mean Girls!

Mean Girls