The horror…: “The Entity”

March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

‘The attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue.’

So state the final words of the texted epilogue that brings Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 film to a somewhat lumpy-throated close. The movie’s last real ‘beat’ (screenplay terminology for a moment of emotional, thematic or narrative significance) arrives seconds before the aforementioned coda and shows single mother Carla Moran (played excellently and with force and commitment by the admittedly always forceful-looking Barbara Hershey) being told by the spectral malevolence that has been tormenting her and her children, ‘welcome home, cunt’. She responds to this obviously male-sounding guttural utterance with a resolute but pained smile, as though she has prepared herself for a future in which she will always and indefinitely be at risk of being violated but is determined to lives as normal and happy a life as she possibly can in spite of it all. Paired with the previously quoted sentence, “The Entity” could probably be read in several ways: as a lament for the reality that male-against-female sexism and violence is still alive and kicking (as much in 1982 as is depressingly the case in 2015); that sexual exploitation can still hide in plain sight; or it could be an expression of the fact that an art form that has for so long seemed to take perverse pleasure in subjecting female characters to the physical and emotional wringer will continue to do so if only for the fact that art reflects human experience and that this kind of human experience shows little sign of becoming ancient history. Of course, it could also be reminder of the fact that there are individuals and families out there – wherever ‘there’ is – who have been and may still continue to be victimised by forces that few can corroborate, fewer can explain and from which nobody can truly protect them at present, as may be the case with Doris Bither and her family, wherever they are. All three readings are dire, either in themselves or by implication, and it would take a pathologically glass-half-full kind of person to find any satisfying element of positivity in this final statement, that ‘the attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue’

Carla Moran is the fictionalised version of the aforementioned Doris Bither, a single mother and resident of mid-seventies Culver City, California, who was the main focus of relentless emotional and sexual violence at the hands of unseen forces (poltergeists?) and whose life and home were at one time subject to the gadgets and psychobabble of paranormal investigations before she upped and moved to Texas where, as the coda states, the occurrences failed to cease if they did abate to some extent. Hershey’s Moran is doing what she can to move up in the world, ‘up’ being a better job and the ability to make rent on time, for example. She is a character of will, with a decent store of pride and a sense of self. There is also significance to the fact that she is attractive because this informs the way in which her interaction with the men in her life comes across on screen, which is to say somewhat seedily and furtively sexualised, from her boyfriend Jerry to her paternalistic, potentially boundary-crossing psychiatrist Sneiderman. Unfortunately and out-of-the-blue, as is the case with Doris, Carla finds herself being held down and raped in the supposed safety of her own bedroom, in her bathroom, in her living room and in the presence of her children who themselves are not off bounds as is certainly not the house, the windows and everything in it. The most frightening thing about the events depicted in this film is the force of the violence and the strange sense that this force, this entity, wants Carla to suffer, to be scared, to be ever uncertain of her safety.  Her ghostly assailant evokes the same eerily oppressive male rage that emanates from drunken football hooligans out for opponents’ blood or inarticulate mobs of men who seem to be out to destroy simply because they must, a phenomenon explored chillingly in a masterpiece like “Wake in Fright.” In fact, for a certain portion of this film, “The Entity,” the possibility of the perpetrator actually being human, or that Carla is suffering post-traumatic symptoms from previous or ongoing acts of violation, still looms. Maybe director Furie and Co had decided to adopt an expressionistic approach in order to suggest that sexual violence is more about the violence than the sexual contact between two people, more about the horrific impact on the victim than the mechanics of the act. There is also the fact that these atrocities could just as easily be committed by an individual or group of individuals who decide to break into her house for one purpose only. In this sense, the film is most effective as a communicator of horror in its earlier moments when the focus is on Carla’s violation, confusion and fear as opposed to its subsequent fascination with electrical discharges, demonic apparitions and micro-gales that explode through homes; the horror is most potent when its basis is in the reality that any woman, any child, maybe even any man, could find themselves violated in the place that they naturally feel most safe. It’s the same reason “Psycho” hit such a nerve back in 1960, preventing travellers from checking into lonely motels or utilising said motels’ showers. As with most films from the genre, the ever present desire of filmmakers to eternalise the source of danger and the root of fear only works to diminish the significance of these things.

This of course leads to the question ‘what is there to be gained in witnessing the silly and exploitative sight of Carla Moran’s prosthetic breasts being fondled by invisible hands, especially once the rapes have already been so powerfully represented with much less explicitness?’ One can probably understand the filmmakers’ desire to prove to an audience, as well as to Carla’s flaky boyfriend Jerry, that these acts are in fact the result of a supernatural presence, and to show off their effects chops which may or may not have been lacking even by 1982 standards. Maybe if the effects were themselves less obviously fake it wouldn’t seem as though the film were making light of something that is inherently heavy. To give credit where credit is due though, on the whole, each incident does bear some sense of significance, narrative or otherwise, and it can’t really be said that the depictions of these are generally gratuitous (it’s always sad when the quality of something is based more on the absence of demerit than on the presence of merit.) As for the men in the film, the range of portrayals is not as caricatured as some might make out. While the supernatural and initially unprovable nature of Carla’s attacks is a nifty way to acknowledge the culture of denial and victim-blame that exists where violence against women is concerned, there are men in the film who seem to be on Carla’s side even if their interests range from scientific conquest to establishing the superiority of their supposedly rational understanding of the world. Dr Sneiderman, the psychiatrist who loses Carla’s trust as the film progresses, is of particular interest. When he first appears on the scene in a hospital consulting room after Carla is nearly murdered in her own car, there is a slimy awkwardness to his very doctorly matter-of-fact questioning. It’s a first impression the character cannot overcome and it simply creates the sense that, belying his obsession with helping Carla and ensuring that her ‘delusions’ are not fed into by the parapsychological researchers that set up shop in her home, he is somehow attracted to her or at least to the fact that he knows so much about her sexual experiences. He quickly becomes the face of chauvinism, a man whose good intentions hardly conceal his desire to dominate emotionally and psychologically, one of which he himself may not be completely aware. To risk being sensationalist, Sneiderman could be seen as the titular entity’s human co-perpetrator, only that he is more focused on exerting emotional power though much less successful at it than his phantom counterpart.

In general “The Entity” is a pretty good film, maybe even a touch underrated, but it has some nagging problems, the most disappointing aspect of all being Furie’s decision to go ‘big’ towards the end such that ‘the entity’ comes across more and more as some sort of hulking gargoylish demon, which in a strange way negates the gender elements or at least files them down to a small pile of dust which can nonetheless get into one’s eyes and cause fits of coughing and sneezing. While one might blame this Michael Bay move on a culture that began – from only a few years prior to this film’s production – to overvalue flashing lights, big noises and mayhem over subtle thrills, there is the creeping sense that the ‘demonisation’ of the entity was a conscious effort to prevent the movie from seeming like a feminist or anti-male statement or at least to steer away from as much of a political reading as possible, which ironically makes the film seem only more exploitative: ‘woman fondled and raped…by cantankerous fantastical fiend!’ when the fact is that violence of a sexual bent is much more likely to be perpetrated by a woman’s father, her partner, a workmate, or the guy she thought was a friend. It’s simply disingenuous for a film to take as its premise the real-life story of Doris Bither, only to decide halfway that it is unwilling to tread the inevitable political minefield. Funnily, in attempting to run away, Furie and friends end up stepping on a whole lot of mines.

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