Opting for exorcism rather than exploitation, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, never presents the graphic reenactment of the Manson Family’s murder of Sharon Tate (and company) that audience members are expecting/dreading. This proves in direct contrast to how American Horror Story: Cult approached the same event two years earlier in the episode “Charles (Manson) in Charge.” Now, AHS isn’t exactly known for restraint, but its decision to go there in showing the savagery is questionable at best, and downright disgraceful at worst. I recently joined back up with Cult, rewatching the aforementioned episode and considering the ostensible merit of the reenactment scene.
For sheer shock value, the scene succeeds. Much like the previous dramatization of the Jonestown massacre, it undoubtedly disturbs with its unflinching depiction of violent death. But did viewers really need to watch a pregnant Tate (Lily Rabe), standing with a noose around her neck and weepily begging for her unborn baby’s life to be spared, end up being stabbed multiple times? One can easily argue that this is a gross disrespect of the memory of the slain celebrity; the show’s producers demonstrate a striking insensitivity to the feelings of the relatives of Tate and the other real-life victims of the Manson Family’s bloody machinations. The scene, with cult leader Kai (Evan Peters) providing voice-over as he tells the notorious story to his Project-Mayhem-type acolytes, is marked by a certain flippancy of tone that adds another level of inappropriateness. Granted, Kai is Cult‘s grand antagonist, and we are supposed to be repulsed by his behavior. And AHS, as the show’s own title unabashedly establishes, is in the horror business, not that of giving viewers the warm fuzzies. Still, a line seems to have been crossed here, and the nadir of distastefulness neared.
That said, is there anything to appreciate about the scene? I did like how the actors from the season’s main storyline were utilized in the reenactment. Billie Lourd’s turn as the reticent Linda Kasabian cleverly reflects the outlying position of the actress’s Willow character in relation to brother Kai’s cult/political movement. Similarly, Sarah Paulson playing the (t)witchy Susan Atkins forms a nice piece of foreshadowing of her main character Ally’s dark deviation at season’s end. Indeed, the real impact of the scene is not its recreation of the murderous incident on Cielo Drive in 1969, but its set-up of the horrors to come on Cult. A raving Kai (whose psychotic break is evident when he subsequently holds conversations with a hallucinated Manson) calls for a “Night of a Thousand Tates,” a frightfully exponential copy-catting of Manson Family madness. Kai’s preparation of his hit squad in the season finale (complete with a knifing tutorial using a plastic anatomical model, and a practice stabbing of watermelons) ranks amongst the most chilling moments in the show’s history.
Of course, not even AHS would dare go that far, and the Night of a Thousand–or even a Hundred–Tates never comes to pass. Significant suspense, though, was created by the use of the Tate-murder reenactment scene. I don’t know if this ultimately justifies the show’s artistic choices, and for me the decision to depict such a scene remains controversial. “Charles (Manson) in Charge”–that mocking, unsuitably unserious note can be discerned in the very title of the episode–leaves me questioning what those in charge of the show’s content were honestly thinking.