The Entity (1982)

The Entity (1982) Directed by Sidney J. Furie

“An unknown force assaults the daily intimate space of domestic life”, generalizing this succinct description of the plot let’s say that it is nothing novel within the tendencies of supernatural horror movies that expanded in the 70’s and 80’s. It was 1982, the resounding success of Spielbergian populism in coalition with the morbid wit of  Tobe Hopper had spawned one of the definitive supernatural horror films of the 80’s, the breathtakingly creepy Poltergeist. Consequently, The Entity, released the same year months later than its counterpart, did not gain the same popularity, nor the same influence, although it was a moderate box office success, it gained more notoriety for the controversy it engendered in the female audience and not for the sublimity of its filmmaking. This can be corroborated by my own personal experience encountering this interesting piece of horror cinema only this year. After many years of exploring the oddities of this exceptional modern decade for horror cinema, I had never come across The Entity. Likewise, I’ve never seen it as a film that is discussed or has a large fan base that reveres it as many fans do with Poltergeist. The little exposure this film has had over the years is somewhat galling; for this film does not deserve to be labeled as the bastard sibling of Poltergeist nor does it have to be criticized for its flagrant rip-off of The Exorcist’s peculiarities. Its merits are autonomous, and the fact that I have only recently discovered its preternatural pleasures makes me feel fortunate to have rediscovered this celluloid object undeservedly lost in time. Perhaps, for the best, the fact that other films have eclipsed it makes its rediscovery a legitimate justice. And I am delighted to know that 1982 conceived two films as analogous as they are different, one more brilliant than the other, though I refuse to say which is which.

The Entity, directed by Sidney J. Furie and written by Frank De Felitta, is based on the latter’s novel about a single woman with three children who suffers a series of unexplained events, violent sexual abuse, beatings, movements of inanimate objects and unusual seismic shocks. These events are inspired by the real case of Doris Bither who claims to have been raped by a ghost. The transposition of these extraordinary events into the audiovisual medium is not accurate, nor is there any attempt to interpret the horrifying experiences with an objective slant. The trick, however, is an insightful one, from a conventional use of the rhetoric of employing the “fantastique” factor to articulate the metaphors to fostering a nuanced dispute between parapsychology and psychology. The scientific discipline of psychology confronts the esoteric parapsychology which it considers a pseudoscience. With a rhythmic exchange of multiple interpretations, the film comfortably traverses a copious number of perspectives from divergent lenses. The phenomenology of paranormal manifestations in the rationalist interpretation of atheists and that of a predominantly secular modern society is distinguished from the reading that a believer might give to these apparitions or otherworldly experiences. The Entity is a potently dramatic horror film because of its ambivalent approach to the real events from which it draws its inspiration. The script is fairly straightforward, not circuitous in its narratological direction; it is evident that it attempts to take seriously, or even assume, that the supernatural events are true, and in doing so summons the complexities of metaphor to draw analogies, many of them about the traumas a woman suffers after sexual abuse. However, Sidney J. Furie’s direction deviates from that self-evident frontality, choosing instead to take the story into extremely physical, corporeal and tactile territory, thus unsettling our unadulterated perception of what we see, whether we are believers or not.

The film has a formidable physicality. One would think that a supernatural horror film should conjure up the phantasmagoric and ethereal sensation of being immersed in a surreal atmosphere. Nevertheless, The Entity with obsessive necessity wants to convey the real world, the reality of the main protagonist. The sound design proves this statement, every time a spectral event occurs the magnetic force of the camera targets and attracts only the palpability of the event. Noises, screams, shocks and jolts are intensely accentuated. To better round out my idea, let’s review the plot now from the horizon of fiction. Carla Moran, played fiercely by Barbara Hershey, is raped by an unspecified, invisible and aggressive force. She lives in Los Angeles, has two little daughters and a young son, the latter from her first marriage. At the beginning of experiencing these disturbing assaults, her first reaction is to run away or hide in her best friend’s house. Of course, no one believes her. Carla goes to see a psychologist. The psychological analysis given by this professional is of no help, as it only leaves Carla with the bad impression that she is the problem and that dreadful events from her childhood are being manifested in panic attacks and in these violent outbursts. There is no cure for the vulnerable Carla, only suffering and subjugation by this nefarious phantom. When the plot seems to stagnate in a rather cyclical system of suspense filmmaking, two parapsychologists enter the story to help Carla, although their motivation is also driven by academic curiosity. From this point on, The Entity becomes a sort of Ghostbusters meets Poltergeist, and I say this with pure enthusiasm for the sake of argument.

Let’s not get confused with what I just mentioned. Yes, the plot comes to its final acts as a ghost hunter movie, but the tone remains the same, solemn and serious. Barbara Hershey’s powerhouse performance, one of the most underrated you’ll ever see, is simply phenomenal. The dependence the filmmakers of The Entity have on her elucidates why the plot works so well emotionally; it’s a visceral dramatic exercise. Which brings me to the central theme of absolutely everything. As a film where material tangibility takes precedence over establishing a paranormal atmosphere, Barbara Hershey’s grief-stricken, weary face powerfully underpins the whole essence of terror. For example, whenever we witness the brutal rapes, the film’s method of cutting is constructive, detailed and precise in its physicality. We do not see the rape scene itself, we see the desperate and agonizing face of the character, then, with subtle insert shots and disorienting Dutch angles, we see anatomical grotesqueness and also material aspects like the lighting, the bed, the pillow, the shower, etc. They may seem insignificant elements, but they are unmistakable properties of the visceral effect the film has on us. These functions are there for a reason. The fact that there is no emphasis on giving the ghost any appearance, or even any sense of space in the place where it appears demonstrates the quasi-agnostic purposes of this production to analyze the uncanny material.

When the grand and long-awaited finale eventually arrives, the debate between what we can see and what we cannot see grows and stretches without an exact conclusion, but at least the film has the neutral wisdom to leave us with a free definition of what we have just seen. Easily, one could resolve the film’s most controversial questions through metaphorical examination, which is crystal clear when it comes to the issues of violence against women. Carla Moran, a female character who starts as a helpless and docile victim and ends as a tough heroine, the resilient and above all psychoanalytical message about her spectrophilic experiences make her an astonishing character of 80’s cinema, and in the symbolic sense a daunting and heartbreaking display of what it means to suffer sexual abuse. Yet, I am even more fascinated by the entertaining, edgy and provocative dichotomous philosophy the film employs to narrate this story, a premise that looks and feels sublunary but deals with unearthly themes. The Entity may have many narrative shortcomings, infinite structural flaws, but the effects of its sinister form of filmmaking are convincing not only in its monumental polysemous concepts but also in its non-literal reformulation of supernatural cinema. It greatly deserves recognition from the cinephilia and particularly from horror film buffs.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching films, I'm writing about them.
Editor and Official Film Critic at Celluloid Dimension

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