Monday, October 3, 2016

The Entity / *** (1982)

The horror always arrives in rather dramatic waves. It is never predestined or planned, although isolation appears to be the catalyst for its shameless persistence. “The Entity” by Sidney J. Furie, one of a plethora of forgotten horror films from the early 80s, deals with this scenario on a narrative bedrock that defies mere convention: it tells the story of a woman – ordinary, single and straddled with three young children – who arrives home one evening and finds herself assaulted by an invisible presence in her bedroom. And it is no simple attack she undergoes, either: the nature of it is sexual, and the intensity of the incursion is such that she emerges from it shaken to the core, as shocked as she is violated. Others regard the incident with displaced uncertainty – how can anything happen if no one is in the room? – but here is a woman relatively sane by the measures of her peers, forcing added considerations. Maybe someone was in the room all along that simply waited in the shadows. Maybe the culprit rushed out of sight before witnesses could spot him. Maybe those strange incidents of doors slamming suggest a stalker is hard at work. Or maybe, just maybe, there is something transpiring in her world that defies mere convention, ultimately setting her up for the obligatory guffaws of friends and professionals who assume she is either making it up or acting out from some buried subconscious reasoning.

However you choose to side with conclusions is open to speculation, but one certainty persists through much of the ordeal: this is a film that intends to travel added miles in convincing us of the power of supernatural dangers. From technical values to performances to the sharp degree of transitions, every potential facet of this rather odd premise is manipulated in the favor of unraveling logical certainties. The most jarring of those – certainly effective above expectation – is a shrill musical gimmick that plays during the attacks; pitched at a level that recalls the famous riff of the shower scene in “Psycho,” the chord is a deafening mood device used to suggest the presence of a violent demonic force. Some of those moments, mind you, are almost painful to watch, and the accompanying sounds add a sonic intensity unlike any I have experienced in a mainstream endeavor. By the end, though I couldn’t be certain that what this woman was going through was a legitimate defense of a haunting, there was no denying that I walked away feeling distraught enough by the situation to question my own preconceptions.

he film stars Barbra Hershey (then a newcomer) as Carla Moran, a relatively mild-mannered suburban woman who is seen briefly in the early scenes slogging through the motions of a middle class routine: going to work, running errands, smiling at peers and then returning home to children after a long day of adult responsibilities. The grind is exhibited in a quick flash of images that require little in their delivery, but once she and sits down at a dresser in her bedroom at the conclusion of the day, the film is quick to act on its devious suggestions. That first scene shows a shocked heroine slapped around and tossed on a bed almost too abruptly for us to gather, and though less than a minute of struggling ensues, the final impression is a sobering one: this is a woman with urgent problems resting at her doorstep. The attack is followed, of course, by additional visual cues: young children coming to see what is wrong, noises in the other room, doors slamming and the oldest (David Labiosa) chasing after an assailant who might be hiding in the shadows. But if no one is found, how can anyone be sure what Carla went through wasn’t something imaginary? Doubt in the legitimacy of her experience is expressed throughout the outside forces of her life, including a kind but cynical psychiatrist (Ron Silver) who listens eagerly about what transpires and then rationalizes it in a psychological profile that is as cruel as it is deluded.

A search for answers proves infuriating as attacks continue with increased severity. The encounters become so frequent and so severe that shock and awe become quickly replaced by ambivalence and pathos. A simple scene showing the victim prepare for a bath begins ordinary enough, but the movie’s trajectory ultimately trains us to – rightfully – expect it to turn into something far more gruesome. Over and over she is raped by this “entity” without warning, leading eventually to a moment when she nearly loses control of a car and then another where the attack is witnessed by her children during a birthday party (and where her oldest son, Billy, is thrown around by the invisible force when he attempts to intervene). Friends and colleagues remain aloof to of concerns and dismissive of sound theories, but of course they have to: they are not characters who are programmed to understand the strange phenomena of the supernatural. The argument in movies frequently about the unexplained, however, usually require that for the sake of feigning plausible awe, and there are doozies: shots of children cowering in terror as their mother is thrown around a room, mystified gazes by paranormal gurus coming to investigate the claims, and even psychologist skeptics who are necessitated to witness the presence directly during an ambitious climax, where doubt becomes challenged by an implication that something – who knows what – is very, very, wrong.

If “The Entity” warrants the consideration of study now, long after the standards of a successful horror film relegated it to marginal obscurity, it’s because the approach does not belong to the common vernacular for this crowded genre. For filmmakers, horror itself can only be effective if it is clear that something unsettling is going on, and doubts are best left to puzzle films or psychological dramas. But what awakens us from the experience of ordinary terror is a forethought to show these events transpire in the embrace of credible performances and perceptive dialogue, both of which seem delivered at a more reputable pitch than the premise might suggest. There are contemplative discussions that go on between Carla and others. The doctor, caring but arrogant, offers insights that, while infuriating, have a sheen of intricacy to them, allowing for effective exchanges between he and his uncertain patient as the violence intensifies. And then, when there is a sequence in which the entity’s molestation ends with Carla having an orgasm, Barbra Hershey’s inevitable lash-out is so on target that her ordeal bypasses implausibility: the fact that she believes it is happening becomes more than enough to accept her ordeal on a mental level.

Sidney J. Furie wasn’t always a filmmaker, however, that rose to the service of such material. Though his early work ranged from sensational (“Lady Sings the Blues”) to downright overzealous (“The Naked Runner”), his later endeavors (including a “Superman” sequel and the “Iron Eagle” films) showed a filmmaker in the throes of senseless desensitization. Only briefly did he find comfort in the sweet spot of his own abilities, which seemed to emerge out of an inkling to shed relative perspectives on ideas that would seem foreign to the thought process of a casual observer. “The Entity” was certainly part of the latter sensibility, but he didn’t just find synchronicity with this material: he believed in it enough to fill it with intensity, darkness and piercing howls of technical dread. Sometimes that didn’t always work (the film’s climax is a tad too long and off-balance), and at other moments it felt repetitive (a scene in which Carla is raped while her boyfriend looks on feels rather unnecessary). But what does work here does so because it has an unrivaled sense of austerity. Those who find it will not easily misplace the memory of enduring it, and those who discover this while having the sound pumped up to full blast may be left with the feeling that an invisible menace is lurking in their own bedrooms.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Biography/Horror (US); 1982; Rated R; Running Time: 125 Minutes

Barbra Hershey: Carla Moran
Ron Silver: Phil Sneiderman
David Labiosa: Billy
George Coe: Dr. Weber
Margaret Blye: Cindy Nash
Jacqueline Brookes: Dr. Cooley

Produced by
Michael Leone, Andrew D.T. Pfeffer and Harold SchneiderDirected by Sidney J. Furie; Written by Frank De Felitta, based on his novel

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