Sharon Tate has become a cultural totem. Her grisly murder injected a lethal serum into the laid-back pop zeitgeist of L.A. circa 1969. Almost overnight, hippies weren’t seen as just passive tree huggers overflowing with free love on Yasgur’s farm.
Chances are you come upon the film as you might discover a relic of the underworld – a monkey’s paw so to speak – in an obscure curio shop. There’s a mild shock: what stands out is the incongruity of the principal cast – David Niven, Deborah Kerr, David Hemmings and Sharon Tate.
Well, as director John Huston once said, 90% of a film’s success depends on casting.
Sharon Tate is a witch as imagined by the editors of Vogue magazine. If monotone speech patterns, flat line emotions and physical beauty were requisite for the part, then she nailed it. What about Niven? Gone is his breezy, garden party polish of the past. Here, his face in lined with worry and his nerves jump with fatigue. And Deborah Kerr, formerly with a spine of titanium and a firm glare, but now nervous, confused and weakened. Poor David Hemmings of ‘Blow Up‘ fame, with the drooping, puppy eyes, has transmogrified into a satanic British mod. 1960s icon Donald Pleasence gets to indulge his patent, spacy mannerisms, such as staring at a ceiling while slowing mouthing inanities.
David Niven plays the owner of a centuries-old French vineyard. He must return to the estate for financial reasons. Tate and Hemmings, ostensibly sister and brother, live on his land and do little else aside from remedial evil. Deborah Kerr, Niven’s wife, shows up at the mansion, their kids in tow, and is soon confronted by a phantasmagorical, Tudor-era world (replete with muttering peasants) smothered under sinister superstitions that somehow beg for a blood sacrifice.
The black and white photography enhances the dream-like quality of the best scenes. (In the horror/gothic genre, the selection of film stock has an importance almost on par with casting).
The direction is too uneven to develop an engrossing tale, yet, as with all enduring cult films, it supports an “outside narrative” that has little to do with its individual merits and deficiencies. In other words, the presence of Sharon Tate endows what would now be recalled as an offbeat, minor work, with true motive power. This is a story about the evil that men do, even as the world approached the Summer of Love.
Fate dragged Sharon Tate right through the fourth wall, into the sight of Charles Manson, who saw absolutely everything with eyes of the devil.
I.M. Clarke’s musings on 1960s pop culture can be uncovered at http://60spop.blogspot.ca