It’s funny how I was just discussing the films that meant a lot to me at a certain crucial age in my review for the new BD for Peter Hyam’s brilliant Outland. Sidney J. Furie’s notorious 1982 supernatural shocker The Entity appeared during the same phase and although nowhere near as influential or as special as many of the titles I was reminiscing about, it contains a good number of the elements and qualities that helped define what made this era – 1981-1983 – so unique as far as I am concerned. Like many of the titles that I referenced – The Thing, Mad Max 2, The Evil Dead – it was home video that gave The Entity infamy and shelf-life. Something of a cult-following naturally ensued.
“Will you appear to us now?”
“You won’t appear. You won’t appear because you’re a devil out of Hell ... and you’re afraid! You won’t appear until I’m alone … then you’ll come forth to hurt me! Hurt my children!”
The Entity was one of those flicks that many of us saw as a teenager. We’d heard about certain “aspects” of Furie’s demonic suspenser and hushed but excitable playground word-of-mouth pretty much sealed its cult notoriety. But the curious thing about this salacious entry in the Amityville/Exorcist/Poltergeist vogue was that it was powered by a bravura performance from Barbara Hershey that took your breath away far more than any of her nude scenes, and that it was genuinely scary and potent.
Purported to be based on a true story – and how many of these things were floating about during the seventies and early eighties; they were as common as the found-footagers we have nowadays – the film was adapted by Frank De Felitta from his own novel and told the absurd-yet-terrifying tale of Carla Moran, a 33-year-old single mother of three, and played here by Hershey, who was the victim of a series of violent rapes and sexual assaults that were apparently perpetrated by a poltergeist, or some other such malevolent spirit. The attacks came literally out of the blue and occurred mostly within her own home, but also in her car, in her friend’s house, and would eventually happen in front of witnesses, including her children. The film ends with the effective and haunting tag-line that, although this has been a fictionalised account of what happened, the real Carla Moran went on to experience the savage phenomena even after she had relocated from California to Texas. The story was quite infamous and there have been documentaries made about the incidents that tore her life apart, and many varied explanations put forward.
Quite why she was targeted remains unknown, but the strong psychological portrait that was drawn-up around her and the experiences that she had as a child with a disturbing home-life, does make a compelling argument for the phenomena being not so much as having just been created inside her own head but a genuine and frightening manifestation of the sexual rage, fear and guilt that she had been bottling-up inside herself. The film certainly attacks this point of view with the voracious character of Dr. Phil Sneiderman, played with typical tenacity by Ron Silver, whom Carla consults upon the recommendation of a friend after confessing to her that she was raped by a man ... who, um, wasn’t there.
Hershey, who would go on to play another compellingly controversial figure – that of Mary Magdalene – in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ - is simply spellbinding in the role. The screenplay not only puts her through the wringer, physically and emotionally, but it also leaves her character in some rather silly situations and dialogue exchanges that you know wouldn’t pan-out quite the way they do here. She screws up telling her lover, played by Alex Rocco, what has been going on when it is doubtful that this would be the case. She also makes a mess of informing the shrinks about each episode that transpires by being neither emphatic nor detailed enough. One attack that takes place in front of her children leads to her teenage son, Billy (David Labiosa), getting zapped with demonic lightning bolts and beaten to the floor by the unseen assailant. This event, which leads to Billy’s recorded and validated broken wrist is purely brushed aside by Sneiderman with massively superficial ease. And the major assault that Carla’s boyfriend sees before his own anguished eyes, having returned from his cross-country job, leads to the poor bloke getting hurled across the room by the determined spirit and then getting set-upon by Billy who initially believes that he is attacking his mother. Carla is hospitalised after this incident and Sneiderman, who swiftly arrives and is full of concern for everyone, listens to the man’s story yet doesn’t take any of his witness statement into account when he then badgers on with his one-track diagnosis. Moments like this can have you shaking your head in disbelief and shouting at De Felitta for botching the screenplay in this manner. It is perfectly natural for the sceptical authorities to be hugely incredulous and dismissive of these accounts, and the fact that we, as the audience, have seen these things and know them to be true has been designed to constantly aggravate us and exacerbate the situation even further, but to see supposedly pragmatic minds apparently ignoring clean and crystalline evidence corroborated by many other witnesses and still drone on with their own hypothesis is, quite frankly, the hallmark of knee-jerk, formulaic and shallow writing.
Then again, this could just be De Felitta and Furie possibly over-reaching with their plot and hoping to suggest some veil of ambiguity.
Whether or not the phenomena were real or imaginary is all a matter of conjecture for us, the viewers. Furie clearly shows the supernatural elements to be authentic with light-shows and all manner of bedevilment, but the case is also convincingly made that it could all have been conceivably just inside Carla’s head. Even the eyewitness accounts are dressed-up as being nothing more than collective hysteria – and the case is put forward that Carla’s kids, her best friend and her lover could just be reacting to the things that she is making them think they are seeing. In this way, the film could be seen as being somewhat two-faced or even vaguely schizophrenic. Or, then again, the perfect cinematic interpretation of a very complex and emotive situation. We see and hear what Carla is going through during the scenario so we naturally believe in her story. But then the logical, dispassionate and cold-light-of-day diagnosis that Sneiderman puts forward is equally as plausible … and he sticks by it, through thick and thin. Perhaps, Carla’s delusions have bewitched us too.
So the film has the potential for sitting on the fence with regards to the overall verdict.
But the movie needs to work on other, more fundamental levels. And, in many ways, The Entity is a rolling shockwave of intensity that is bolstered, no end, by a couple of very strong performances.
Our concern for Carla is paramount. Hershey brings depth to this unwitting victim, and a beleaguered sense of trauma that is troubling to watch. An early sequence of her and the kids spending all day out at the beach, just so that she can avoid going back home again, is subtly devastating. What can she do? She’s too afraid to tell them exactly what is going on, too afraid of what will happen back at the house. There’s a disquieting fugue of helplessness and paranoia … and this is before things get considerably worse. Hershey plays Carla as a rock with regards to her children, but we can see the cracks that are threatening to shatter it. She misses Jerry (Rocco) and she feels a growing bond with Sneiderman, but when the psychiatrist begins to probe too deeply into areas that she isn’t comfortable with and Jerry gets too scared to stand beside her, she feels betrayed and let down. Hershey makes Carla’s decision to recruit the team of campus ghostbusters, led by Jacqueline Brookes’ Dr. Cooley, a matter of both desperation and defiance. With nobody else who will listen to what is actually happening to her, this is an act of courage that both challenges the beast and flips the bird to accepted scientific dogma. Hershey makes this believable and gutsy. Her summoning of the demon and subsequent mockery of it during a recorded session with the team is a valedictory moment of victim-retaliation. But we can clearly see in her eyes that she is too afraid to believe that she has won.
Hershey has this wonderful insight about her that makes even the most preposterous moments effective, a doomed air of pragmatism that is actually quite heartrending.
Complementing her on the other side of the emotional/psychological divide, Ron Silver is terrific. I’ve always admired him as an actor and he’s at his most likeable/irritating/charismatic/closed-minded/heroic in The Entity, which, as you’ll no doubt appreciate, is a tough combination of traits to convincingly pull off in a character. Here, he sports a look that seems to combine Al Pacino (with that glorious Carlito hair and beard) with seventies-era Michael Douglas. He is playing a blinkered academic, but you can see his concern for Carla melting away in those otherwise shrewd-yet-clinical eyes. Sniederman obviously falls for his patient, but he also sees the case as a challenge to his own belief system, and goes on a crusade not only to save her repressed soul but to debunk the paranormal nerds he thinks are parasites feeding on the woman’s dilemma for their own misguided glory. If the film is all about sexual energy, then Silver is taut with the stuff. In every scene he seems energised and coiled like a spring. His mouth fires off dialogue at a thousand words a minute, and even when he isn’t speaking you can tell he is formulating ideas and plans and sarcastic retorts to spin back with élan. I think he is a superbly unpredictable force on screen, and I can’t believe that he never found more success. Of course, he made a memorably obsessive psycho in the Jamie Lee Curtis cop thriller, Blue Steel, and was a smug villain in the SF Van Dammer, Timecop. But he always seems to represent a character who cannot be properly pinned-down, and someone you can never entirely trust. In this respect, I always find him a believably three-dimensional actor – in parts happy and warm, yet in others indefinable and elusive.
Jacqueline Brookes, on the other hand, gets the mucky end of the stick, character-wise. As the dedicated and compassionate parapsychologist heading up the university’s most avant-garde department, she becomes the genre cliché. In the same year we would see Beatrice Straight assume a very similar, though splendidly nuanced role in Poltergeist as the giddily terrified Dr. Lesh, and Brookes, I’m sorry to say, comes off a very poor second. It is not her fault, you understand, but when she is forced to shout out “Show yourself!” to a formless light show manifestation of the entity’s powers, she seems more grandmotherly than ghostbusterly. Likewise, her parting-shot to a treacherous egghead in denial after the sensationally ridiculous conclusion, seems painfully artificial. You can see that she is trying valiantly to ground her character in some sort of reality, but the script undermines her. Her two cohorts, Raymond Singer’s Joe Mehan and Richard Bresoff’s Gene Kraft, are equally as geekily caricatured, yet their excitability and developing unease as they wrestle with the most alarming investigation of their lives is perfectly authentic. Again, they would have their counterparts in the Spielberg/Tobe Hooper classic, but they should be thankful that neither of their faces gets ripped off by this entity!
Furie, despite his name, has always tended to be a rather banal director. There were the likes of The Ipcress File, back in 1965 with Michael Caine, and the great, though comically counter-culture Vietnam drama The Boys in Company C, but things like the weirdly hackneyed and dull Iron Eagle films (he made three of them) and the woeful Superman IV: Quest for Peace don’t do him any favours. It is dubiously welcome therefore that he takes to the theme of supernatural rape with such aplomb, because Furie clearly loves these horrific attacks and engineers them with considerable style, gusto and variety. Crucially, though, he stages the blood-freezing lull before the storm expertly. We can feel the temperature dropping in the room, let alone Carla. The ticking of a clock, metronomic, hypnotic, infernal. A vague scuffling sound somewhere on the other side, over there in the shadows. The rattling of a drawer and a dressing table. The slamming shut of a door. It is all very strategic stuff, but Furie ladles on the preliminary unease with painstaking, almost excruciating finesse. There is always a risk that what follows won’t live up to the chilling anticipation – which, in itself, is a dark subversion of sexual thrill – but the majority of attacks are nasty, violent and unpleasant, though not gratuitous, despite those schoolyard claims.
He couples these gut-punching attacks with Charles Bernstein’s pounding assault motif – forceful synth thrusts that metaphorically bash away with feverish intensity that become repetitive, but never lose the ghastly severity that makes the spectral molestations so immediately galvanising. This maddening approach works brilliantly with aiding the desire that you yourself have for the assaults to actually stop almost as much as poor Carla does. And the violence inherent in the rape scenes is not skimped-upon, either. The punch that Carla receives to the face when the spirit first makes its presence felt is nasty, immediate and violent and, coupled with her look of shock, leaves you under no illusion that the intention is to titillate. The rape in the shower is equally battering, the direction of the scene and the imagery involved quite pulverising. The bathroom had been the scene of atrocity in horror films before, of course. There was the corpse that won’t stay dead in the bath in Les Diabloque and the terrifying shower that Janet Leigh attempted to take in Psycho. Plus, we had seen an axe-wielding and possessed Jack Nicholson hacking through the bathroom door in The Shining, and poor Barbara Steele meeting a nasty parasite in the tub in Cronenberg’s Shivers. This is a place of combined safety and intimate seclusion and profound vulnerability. The theme of such aggressive home-invasion had been explored before in Black Christmas, Halloween and When A Stranger Calls, each revealing precisely how fallible the seemingly redoubtable family ranch really was, but with The Entity, this was allowed to go a devastating step further into savage personal violation. At least with Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees, or any other psycho-killer targeting you, you could probably see him coming and, at least, fight back or attempt to run away. This thing prowls unseen in the ether and makes its move whenever it feels like it. There isn’t much defence against such an invisible predator that is stalking you. Just ask Arnie and his jungle-buddies.
Women had been sexually assaulted by demons in movies before, of course. Pamela Franklyn received the unwanted attention of a spook in The Legend of Hell House. Demonic trees became rapists in The Evil Dead. The Poltergeist, itself, would even get a little frisky with the freshly bathed Jobeth Williams, and Pamela Stephenson would send all of this up in the spoof chiller Bloodbath at the House of Death. But the thing is that it is never nice to see someone victimised and systematically abused – whether they happen to be male or female – and this is the emotive slant that The Entity is determined to hammer home no matter what its infamous selling points may have appeared to be. Of course the film has its more explicit moments, especially the full-frontal sequence when a pair of prosthetic boobs are being groped by unseen hands (and it won’t escape anyone’s notice that the pair Stan Winston crafts out of rubbery, pliable latex are not a patch upon the real McCoy brandished by Hershey, herself) but it would be wrong to label the film as misogynist or seedily exploitative in its approach. Indeed, the strongest character in it is that of Carla, who has the fullest journey to go on and the greatest arc of discovery to make. Most of the men, asides from Sneiderman, are ineffective cowards or dumbstruck onlookers. Carla at least stands her ground, and she has the guts to fight back.
Terrific anamorphic cinematography from Stephen H. Burum (regular DOP for Brian De Palma, with such classy visual showcases as The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way and Snake Eyes to his credit, alongside genre fare such as the sublime Disney terror-tale Something Wicked This Way Comes) bestows the film a sumptuously wide feel. Fluid camerawork tracks characters and surveys shadowy corners with mounting trepidation. A suburban house becomes opened-up to us, the intimacy of the situation weirdly enhanced by the very width of the frame. Burum also gives some great compositions of foreground characters and background activity in equal detail. Quite nicely, it is the more mundane of moments that seem to benefit the most from this, almost like Furie and Burum are boosting up these quieter scenes with something at least visually interesting to keep up us on our guard. Shots of Sniederman in close-up at one edge of the frame with his equally stubborn department head, Dr. Weber (George Coe) seen behind him on the phone at his desk on the other side, and others of similarly cunning design, make the film lively and involving even when nothing is actually happening. But then the slamming shut of a door that we have been nervously watching in the corner of the screen is probably the best example of his picturesque determination to manipulate our fears.
Music for a monstrous molester.
Asides from his thunderous and incessantly violent attack motif, Bernstein’s glacial synth score is a creepy delight that unmistakably provides Furie’s film with its demented and malicious soul. His main theme is doom-laden and haunting – and peculiarly effective during the opening credits when it plays over a montage of Carla going about her normal day and finally coming home for the evening. It genuinely seems to herald the end of what relative happiness and harmony she had been able to find for herself and her family. But so much of the best material he delivers is actually during the quietest of moments. Long, gleaming lines of stretched note shimmering crank up the skin-prickles as the house falls into a hushed and nervous anticipation. Little tiny chime-like pulses claw the psyche. But his bombast works mischievous magic, too. An utterly superb cue full of metallic brushing and a jaw-dropping whooshing effect signify the moment when the entity makes a shapeless, phosphorescent appearance. Another clamorous piece has the harsh, thudding anger of a prepared piano giving a frighteningly intense and gothic-organ-sounding rhythm. The score is playing as I write this review … and the kids are too afraid to enter the room which, for me, represents a rare treat when I’m trying to work. It is a cold, alienating and disturbing score to be sure, but it is perfectly in-tune with both the film’s emotional dislocation and the era’s penchant for electronics. Bernstein brought a combination of cosily traditional genre unease and a funky 70’s disco vibe to the underrated comedy-horror Love At First Bite (with uber-tanned George Hamilton IV as a relocated, revamped Dracula in glitterball New York), but alongside The Entity he will be fondly championed by genre-fans for his outstanding score to A Nightmare on Elm Street, another wickedly atmospheric and pant-wettingly scary musical broadside. Both soundtracks make for incredibly vivid and nerve-shredding experiences either during the films or as standalone albums in their own right.
There’s no escaping the fact that the film loses steam during the otherwise tense climactic mission to capture the deviant poltergeist. Suddenly, we have to associate the fear we have of something unseen, but physically strong and hugely malevolent, with the comically unthreatening image of a renegade nozzle being manipulated under its demonic influence. Now, you can make whatever phallic associations you want about this rogue appendage ejaculating lethal spurts of liquid helium at the retreating Carla, but it does diminish the fear ratio quite considerably and makes everything dovetail into the realm of a slightly less boo-hissy pantomime. Which is a shame because, up until this point, we’ve been quite willingly suckered-in to this crazy scenario of molesting shades and Doubting Thomases. That said, however, the final sequence, the bit that comes after all this freeze-fright shenanigans, features a supremely sleazy audio spine-tingler that I have to admit I have never really noticed before. And, as silly as it may sound to some people, I think this adds a jolt bold and sickening enough to bring the whole situation down into a frighteningly intimate, yet never-ending cyclone of nightmarish persecution.
The Entity has certainly got some detractors. I know people - grownups, that is - who have giggled all the way through it and mocked its serious tone. I can’t help that. For me, I find nothing at all amusing in the notion of rape – even if perpetrated by a devilishly randy poltergeist – and Barbara Hershey’s performance is so gruellingly committed that even at its weakest, Furie’s shocker keeps you onboard. I cannot deny that the film has its faults. The attack in the car doesn’t make any sense at all, and doesn’t fit in with the demon’s modus operandi. Some exchanges are dizzyingly daft and unrealistic and the final spook-trapping set-piece really could have been handled much better, but this is still a bravura story with some seriously scary sequences. When I was a kid and I first saw this, I waited until my folks had gone to bed and watched it on the big TV downstairs, with all the lights out. After what I had been told about it, I was expecting a different kind of movie altogether. And it is fair to say that I was severely rattled by the experience and found it very difficult to finally return to my bedroom at the top of the house, all the way up a lot of dark stairs. Watching it again, after quite a number of years, that same shivery frisson of dread caught me once more … perhaps symbolic of the spectre’s ceaseless and undiminished infatuation with Carla Moran.
As silly as some aspects of this film undoubtedly are, The Entity is a terrific horror show that serves as a great and far more sombre and adult cousin to the flamboyant pyrotechnics of Poltergeist.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.