The chances are you either know or have at least heard of Sharon Tate because of how she died. The actress died 50 years ago at the age of 26, eight months pregnant with her first child, after being brutally attacked by followers of Charles Manson. The murders committed by the infamous Manson family terrorized Hollywood and led to what Joan Didion called the end of the 1960s. In a city and industry defined by the ceaseless battle between beauty and brutality, there is something about the near-mythic story of Sharon Tate that endures, as evidenced by Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which features Tate as a supporting character (played by Margot Robbie). It's also a legend that by and large erases the true life of Tate and her work as an actress, the thing that originally made her famous.
Sharon Tate only made six movies during her brief career, alongside a handful of TV appearances. During her time, she was mostly famous as an incredible beauty and It Girl, the wife of an up-and-coming European auteur, and someone who the industry didn't seem to take all that seriously. Critics lavished praise on her looks but were seldom as kind about her abilities and frequently denied her even the right of potential. While she was alive, she was written off as a sex symbol. After she died, she became a tragedy. In a sense, it's always been tough to talk about her films. Conspiracy theorists dissect them for "proof" of what "really" happened to her, while critics view them as campy, so-bad-they're-good exploits or stories not worth much beyond their attachment to Tate herself.
Amidst these six movies are two genre titles that helped to build the beginnings of Tate's image as a scream queen: Eye of the Devil and The Fearless Vampire Killers. It would be, at best, generous to call either movie good, but what they do offer is an insight into how Tate was viewed by the world, how she was used by the industry, and what the horror genre could (or could not) do for someone like her.
Tate, an army brat who found her way to movies while stationed with her family in Italy, began working in Hollywood under the management of producer Martin Ransohoff. He signed her to a seven-year contract and got her bit parts in television series like The Beverly Hillbillies (a role for which she wore a dowdy brown wig to obscure her beauty — it didn’t work). After several years of, in Ransohoff's mind, waiting until she was ready, Tate finally got her first major movie role in Eye of the Devil, which he produced. In the film, David Niven plays a wealthy landowner whose vineyard has struggled with a bad crop. He soon discovers that the only way to revive their fortunes is through occult means, but fortunately, a pair of sibling witches, played by Tate and David Hemmings, are also living on the estate.
Eye of the Devil is typical of the era's B-movie horror fare, only with the inimitable gloss of prestige that only a cast with actors like Niven and Deborah Kerr could provide. The settings are gorgeous and there are fascinating surreal flourishes now and then. It’s a movie that feels on the cusp of the decade’s psychedelia but is a tad too timid to commit to the mood. Tate, however, is aesthetically a perfect fit for this. While she isn’t given much to do beyond look eerie and beautiful, you can’t deny that it’s a task she accomplishes with relish. She’s a burst of modernity in a creaky retro world. But beyond that, she’s not expected to do much else. Her job is to be a presence, and she’s great at that, but it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that the film-makers didn’t believe she could do much else.
For Tate's next film, Ransohoff kept her in the world of genre. The Fearless Vampire Killers (originally titled Dance of the Vampires before the name change and added subtitle of Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck) was intended as a pastiche of Hammer Horror movies, which had come to dominate the genre during the decade as they descended more into camp self-parody. Tate was given the leading female role at the behest of Ransohoff, despite the director's hesitation, but he was quickly won over by her. Said director, Roman Polanski, would later become Tate's husband.
Polanski also stars as a hapless professor’s assistant, accompanying him on a trip to the deepest heart of Transylvania in search of vampires. They find an isolated village terrified of the undead threat they refuse to talk about, and a nearby castle with a crumbling vampiric count and his son. The threat of humanity’s annihilation is at an all-time high, but mostly, people are worried about getting laid.
Whereas Eye of the Devil at least gave Tate’s character some ethereal power, The Fearless Vampire Killers is pretty blatant in how it reduces her to just another pretty victim. As Sarah Shagal, the beautiful but sheltered daughter of an innkeeper who a nefarious vampiric count has his eye on, Tate is blatantly leered over by the camera and her male co-stars at every opportunity. If the intent is to poke fun at the male gaze-y nature of Hammer Horror, which leaned heavily into the titillating combination of boobs and blood, then it fails miserably. It’s not an especially funny comedy, but Tate is also denied a chance to be in on the joke. And there’s really no joke here: it’s just another story of a beautiful woman who exists to be fought over.
The Fearless Vampire Killers went through its fair share of production problems. The American studio MGM didn't know what to do with the film and ended up re-dubbing it and giving it a cartoony opening credits scene lest audiences forget the movie was supposed to be a comedy. Oddly, the film has gone on to have an incredibly long afterlife thanks to a wildly successful Austrian musical stage adaptation, and it's a hell of a lot better than the movie, but that's a story for another day. For Tate, the film was another financial and critical under-performer that did little to overcome skepticism surrounding her career. But it’s hard to judge her in The Fearless Vampire Killers because, once again, she has a pitiful job to do. It’s all about her looks and how men around her respond. As a Hammer Horror parody, it completely misses the point, and as a generic horror comedy, it merely replicates the same sexist tropes once more. She’s beautiful, and that’s all anyone really wanted her to be at the time.
Hollywood has improved over the decades, but it would be a bald-faced lie to claim things have gotten drastically better. This is an industry — and indeed a society — still prone to treating women as disposable objects that can be replaced quickly, easily, and cheaply should the occasion call for it. Reviews, interviews, and reporting of Tate’s life and death are steeped in this implication, and it’s not something we’ve managed to escape, both in terms of Tate and women in general. Even Tate’s non-genre films, including the delightfully camp Valley of the Dolls and the surprisingly fun spy pastiche The Wrecking Crew, have this issue.
Genre fiction has always had an uncanny ability to add the often missing layers to women’s lives in pop culture, but it’s a double-edged sword that can stifle as much as it liberates. For every victim, there is a final girl. Genre can be the best way to realize an oft-underestimated woman’s potential. Just look at how Jennifer’s Body was the movie that finally got Megan Fox. As with any star who dies young and tragically, we speak more about their potential than their reality, which is a massive fault in our mindsets, but there’s something to be said for Tate’s potential. She was a beguiling presence who would have been right at home in The Wicker Man or a Dario Argento movie when he was at his most witchy. After reading the umpteenth terrible profile where Sharon Tate was talked about almost exclusively in terms of her admittedly stunning looks, I yearn to see a movie where she could play around with those assumptions and throw them back in men’s faces.
When Tate died, Hollywood entered a state of feverish paranoia, unsure of why she'd died and if they were next. Rumors began to swirl that Tate and those she died with were targeted because of drugs or some sort of occult connection. Various newspapers speculated that Tate was involved in Satanic rituals and pointed to her work in Eye of the Devil as proof. The reality — that a drugged up wannabe rockstar hippie encouraged his followers to cause havoc in the name of revenge over a perceived business slight — was more mundane by the paranoid standards of the press but no less horrific.
The legacy of Sharon Tate is that of Hollywood’s history as well as its lore. It’s not hard to see why Tarantino is so fascinated not just by her but by the era she embodies: liberated by the times but stifled by them, too. As with those genre films that defined her career, her life and death and potential are now the stuff of speculative fiction. If only it could provide the freedom her legacy deserves.