Screened as part of the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol, Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 supernatural horror film The Entity is ripe for reappraisal (and it is now available on Blu Ray in the UK). This rare big screen outing for a film that has languished in relative obscurity since its original release was presented by The Final Girls (@thefinalgirlsuk) Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe. They first apologised for what they were about to put the audience through, but looked forward to hearing post film reactions. Frankly, I was a little too stunned by the movie to offer any in the immediate aftermath. Hopefully the following review makes up for that.
Be warned, spoilers do follow…
Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is a single mother with a teenage son and two younger daughters. Although she has a turbulent past and is financially challenged, she is studying at secretarial college, and her children are happy. This changes drastically when Carla is sexually assaulted in her bedroom by an invisible presence, the ‘entity’ of the title. Her screams wake her children, who find their mother in extreme emotional distress, but her son finds all the windows and doors locked, and no sign of any attacker.
Because of the lack of any physical evidence Carla initially accepts her son’s explanation that she has suffered an extremely vivid nightmare. But when she is again attacked, a friend advises her to seek the help of a psychiatrist. There is a walk-in clinic at the nearby university that will see patients even if they have low incomes.
Carla is reluctant, but when the paranormal force takes control of her car sending her careering into LA traffic, she becomes convinced that the entity means to kill her and she must seek help. However, psychiatrist Dr. Phil Sneiderman (Ron Silver) is convinced that the attacks are a manifestation of a psychological problem and pursues a rational explanation.
As the attacks continue Carla becomes increasingly frustrated that no-one will believe that she is in real physical danger. Researching the occult in a bookstore she bumps into parapsychologists also from the local university and seeks their help in investigating the phenomena.
In the film’s spectacular finale parapsychologists build a replica of Carla’s house inside a university gymnasium. The house is encased in a glass box that will be filled with liquid helium when the entity manifests to make its spectral form physical. Still convinced Carla’s problems are entirely psychological Sneiderman tries to disrupt the experiment.
Released in 1982, The Entity was buried by the blockbuster success of Poltergeist. Sidney J. Furie’s film shares many paranormal thriller tropes with the Spielberg produced (and probably directed) picture but is far more confrontational. Poltergeist is an entertaining fairground ride, while it arguably has an anti-capitalist subtext around unscrupulous real estate developments, this is buried beneath a thick syrup of wide eyed wonder. In contrast The Entity could not be more different in tone and its theme of sexual violence is realised in a startlingly graphic way.
The enormous success of The Exorcist first as a novel, and then a film convinced both publishers and film studios that horror, and in particular paranormal horror, could be profitable enough to justify significant budgets. The success of Frank De Felitta’s 1975 novel Audrey Rose and in 1977 The Amityville Horror by Jay Ansen turned the ‘based on true events’ paranormal thriller into a literary bubble with both adapted for film.
The Entity is based on another bestseller by De Felitta also based on an actual case. However, the film, scripted by De Felitta, makes significant changes. A history of substance abuse and allegations of a poor relationship with her children are removed from Carla’s back story, also wisely deletes is the real victim’s claim that the supernatural rapists were Asian. The special effects bonanza of the film’s third act is also a complete fabrication.
If Furie and De Felitta’s flexible approach to realism seem to push the film towards the exploitation highway, the escalating special effects used to convey the brutal attacks kicks it screaming into oncoming traffic. Stan Winston worked on the films makeup effects, and the pre-CGI physical effects used to show Barbara Hershey’s naked body being assaulted are both astonishing and repulsive. The effects are as good as Poltergeist’s and in some cases (such as optical effects work that creates spectral lightening) superior.
Some of the film’s plotting is haphazard bordering on lazy. The scene where Moran suddenly pops up from behind a bookstore shelf after overhearing two parapsychologists discussing how rare it is to find a good case to investigate is hilarious. It should not have been difficult to contrive a plausible way for her to meet the scientists in a way that felt natural. Having her just randomly bump into them in the occult section of a bookstore is ridiculous.
Sidney J. Furie is an eclectic journeyman director, the Canadian found his early success in the UK directing Cliff Richard vehicle The Young Ones in 1961, and The Ipcress File in 1965. His subsequent career highlights include the Billie Holliday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (1972) with Diana Ross, and the adolescent Top Gun rip off Iron Eagle in 1986. He also has the dubious accolade of directing not only one of the worst ever franchise killers, but one of the worst films produced by Cannon (this is a MAJOR achievement) in 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
The Entity is efficiently directed. While Furie is far too fond of Dutch tilts he lights the practical effects well. The finale where the entity takes control of the scientists’ supercooled helium system causing havoc is excellently mounted. Hershey running through her fake home light with red warning lights as it fills with dry ice and shards of flying glass evokes Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria.
Seeing the film well projected with great sound (courtesy of Bristol’s Cube Microplex) emphasised both the quality of Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography and Charles Bernstein’s score. Burum would go on to shoot Rumblefish for Coppola and become a key collaborator for Brian De Palma shooting films including Body Double, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible.
Bernstein would go on to score A Nightmare on Elm Street for Wes Craven, but his score here is particularly notable. His initial theme has a Tubular Bells vibe but becomes a pounding rhythmic assault during the supernatural attacks. The incessant and punishing score makes the film’s many rape scenes not just uncomfortable to watch, but uncomfortable to listen to.
What really raises the film up, and makes this a picture that is worth looking at again, is Hershey’s performance. The film is undeniably exploitative, and even in 1982 it was trading in paranormal investigation genre tropes firmly established in 1963’s The Haunting and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House. Hershey seems oblivious to the hokey elements of the material. Her commitment truly sells the fantastical plot and makes the attack scenes truly harrowing viewing. It would have been all too easy for the film to become a real sleazefest, especially as there is no coyness over explicit nudity, but Hershey conveys palpable horror and pain.
Despite this being a film created by male filmmakers, Hershey makes The Entity a potent metaphorical exploration of the experience of a sexual assault victim and the lack of support available to her. Throughout the film, Carla is disbelieved by doctors, psychiatrists, friends, even her family. She is unable to report the crime because there is no evidence. A scene in which her friend witnesses an attack and tells Carla she is ashamed to have doubted her is an emotional punch to the gut. Hershey’s face shows that the most important thing for her is just to be believed.
Carla must become her own saviour, defiantly facing down her assailant: “You can do anything you want to me, you can torture me, kill me, anything. But you can’t have me. You cannot touch me.”