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Evil in the bedroom
A region 2 DVD review of THE ENTITY by Slarek
 

Sidney J. Furie's The Entity is, amongst other things, an intriguing barometer of critical hypocrisy. A horror film with a strong subtextual undercurrent, it is centred around a woman who is being violently abused and raped by a powerful and malicious poltergeist. Inevitably and understandably, many of those who are critical of the film have attacked it for this element, chastising it for being exploitative and creating an entertainment on the back of the very real suffering that such abuse causes. And to a degree at least, they're right. But many of those very same dissenters have absolutely no issue with the often graphic violence inflicted on all manner of individuals in countless other genre works. Death, dismemberment, and suffering are OK, but rape is bad. Guess what, guys, in the real world they're all bad, and they're all equally bad.

The whole debate around the exploitative nature of entertainment cinema has raged for years and will no doubt continue to do so. In generic terms, horror is always going to be at the centre of that discussion, as by its very nature horror films exploit both their subject matter and our own deeply rooted fears. That, as they say, is the nature of the beast. If you are dealing with horror then you are dealing in exploitation, and if you are a horror fan you can either be aware of this or ignore it, but either way you are going to get your intellect wet.

Within this debate, the issue of personal politics inevitably causes sub-divisions and demarcation lines. Rape in particular is a particularly emotive subject that film-makers and audiences have become increasingly sensitive to in recent years. Thus the casual comic references in Blazing Saddles ("You said 'rape' twice" – "I like rape") nowadays sit awkwardly amidst the still-smart digs at liberal race guilt, and Clint Eastwood's shut-her-up assault on the mouthy saloon girl in the otherwise stylish High Plains Drifter uncomfortably reflects an attitude that seems foolishly archaic today.

As with any other form of human suffering, rape is inevitably going to be part of film drama, but the smart consensus is that if it has to be shown, then it should not be portrayed as a positive experience for the victim. The notorious complicit rape scene in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs continues to be a huge problem even for fans of the film (myself included), but it is not inconsistent with the sometimes shabby treatment handed out to women in other Peckinpah films. And, of course, The Entity director Sidney J. Furie lacks the near-indestructible sheen that is afforded to cinema's recognised auteurs. There is, as yet, no snob value in championing post-Ipcress File Furie.

In recent years the debate has intermittently resurfaced through films such as The Accused, The War Zone and, of course, Gasper Noé's Irréversible, whose harrowing ten-minute rape scene is almost impossible to watch. As it should be. What links all three of these films is that their depiction of rape is singularly focused on the appalling suffering that this very male form of assault causes its victim. That The Entity also takes this stance should similarly qualify it as victim-centred, but there's one prejudicial problem – this is not a social drama, it's a horror film, and if all horror films are exploitation then this film must treat rape in an exploitative way. QED.

Except it's not that simple. Although the prime purpose of any fear-based horror tale is to scare its audience – and the assaults here can be viewed mere as a tool insensitively employed to that end – the strongly subtextual nature of the horror genre allows for a very different reading, and one that directly challenges this viewpoint. The central character of Carla Moran is a single mother who suddenly and repeatedly suffers sexual assault at the hands of a malevolent spirit. Even her closest friend has trouble believing her and recommends she visit University psychiatrist Phil Sneiderman, who is convinced that the problem is all in Carla's mind. As the attacks continue and their violence increases, Sneiderman remains convinced that they are self-inflicted, prompting Carla to engage the help of parapsychologist Dr. Elizabeth Cooly and her team, who ultimately propose a way to isolate and perhaps destroy the Entity.

As a straight-up horror story, this is largely familiar woman-as-terrorised-victim stuff, but placed in a social context this is also film about spousal/boyfriend abuse and the effect it has on the victim and those closest to her. Initially, Carla's claims that she has been raped are not believed and her horrific bruises are passed off as self-inflicted. Within the context of the supernatural story presented here this is inevitable, but in real world terms this will prove chillingly familiar to anyone who has been close to someone who has suffered physical or sexual abuse from their partner and not been taken seriously because, "Oh come on, I know him, he wouldn't do that!" In this respect, the film's masterstroke is making this vicious and unmotivated attacker invisible and giving it no identity or back-story, preventing any audience identification with the rapist and making the effect of the assauts on the victim the only focus of these scenes. That they are uncomfortable at best and often downright disturbing seems only right, and that we should dread the onset of another attack – whose arrival is signified by tilted camera angles and a crashing score that accentuates both their violence and the sexual nature of the assault – prompts questions that go beyond film and into the real world, about just what it means to be a prisoner of violence within your own family. This is especially evident the first time an assault is witnessed by others, and it seems only logical that it should be by Carla's own children – the younger two are traumatised but eldest boy Billy attempts to fight off the attacker, as any faithful teenage son should or indeed would, and suffers a broken wrist for his troubles.

Expectations are sometimes surprisingly inverted, with well-meaning psychiatrist Phil Sneiderman offering both hope and the possibility of a stable romantic future for Carla, but his refusal to accept a paranormal explanation and stubborn dedication to the theories of his profession sabotage his knight-in-shining-armour potential and cast him ultimately as a betrayer, choosing cold logic when what Carla needs most is sympathy and faith. It's a similar story with money-minded boyfriend Jerry, who when confronted head-on with the truth chooses to deny what he has seen and run away. Carla is left unable to seek help from the men in her life, none of whom appear to be up to the job, and it is left to her to lead the fight back, an act of self-empowerment that gives her moral strength but could ultimately result in her physical destruction.

That we buy into every aspect of this gradual transformation from terrified victim to determined survivor is thanks primarily lead player Barbara Hershey, who delivers an astonishingly brave and self-confident performance in a role that few would have accepted without requiring some serious changes to the script, with one full body nude scene (admittedly there is prosthetic make-up here) presenting the actress in an almost uncomfortably frank state of vulnerability. It is Hershey's total emersion in the role that engages us so much with her plight, makes the suffering and fear real, and her determination to fight her aggressor utterly believable. Performances elsewhere are serviceable, but Ron Silver's sometimes infuriating self-assurance as Sneiderman is urgently naturalistic and never comes across as script-fed, his unwavering conviction that Carla's wounds are self-inflicted in some ways recalling the stubbornly intransigent doctors in The Exorcist – in the real world he and they would make complete sense, but in the movie we absolutely know they are wrong and want them, above all else, to realise that.

But social subtext aside, this is still on the surface a horror movie and on this score The Entity tends to shine. Screenwriter Frank De Felitta and director Sidney J. Furie waste little time on build-up, giving us a rough sketch of the main character (strong willed and independently minded single mother with three kids from two different fathers, financially strapped but studying to improve her social situation), then hitting us and her with the first attack just seven minutes into the film. The tension kicks in from this point and infests Carla's house and pretty much every scene set in it, quickly building an atmosphere of constant unease and dread that sometimes explodes into some very well calculated shocks. The dialogue wobbles a little in the early scenes, but in moments of conflict and crisis it really sparks, with a pivotal exchange between Carla and Sneiderman that results in her rejecting his help providing a showcase for the talents of both actors.

It is after this scene that the film moves into more familiar territory, with the introduction of the parapsychology team and their equipment recalling both Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting and John Hough's 1973 The Legend of Hell House. There are also strong similarities here to Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, which was released almost simultaneously (at least in the UK) and eclipsed The Entity at the box office. For my money, however, Poltergeist is a far less impressive film, having executive producer Steven Spielberg's mark all over it, from the annoying middle American family and "oh aren't they lovely" spirits to the film's propensity to shout where The Entity speaks in hushed tones. This is most effectively demonstrated by the same narrative point in both films, when the sceptical parapsychologists are persuaded to take on the case – in Poltergeist this involved an almost comically over-the-top special effect involving a room full of whirling objects, whereas in The Entity it is achieved with nothing more than a trembling mirror. Where The Entity falls into a similar trap is in its climax, an attempt to end the film on a big bang that suffers from an invasion of action movie scale and logic – having demonstrated the deadly effects of liquid helium, the film then has its characters dodge and outrun it and even get hit by it without ever suffering its harmful effects.

But on the whole The Entiry delivers and does so big time. What lifts it above so many of its sub-generic ilk (Poltergeist included) is that it tells an engrossing story in compelling fashion, and – kind of important for a horror movie – is genuinely scary. If it trips up a bit on the climax then that's forgivable, though how you'll react to the final 'based on fact' coda will depend on your views on the existence or otherwise of supernatural forces. I have to admit that as a confirmed unbeliever, I would probably find myself out in the real world aligning myself with Phil Sneiderman, and it's a testament to this well-executed horror story that, for just a couple of hours, I'd buy into the ghost story and tell Sneiderman to his face that he's a fool.

And so we come to the proposed upcoming remake, which is in the hands of Japanese director Hideo Nakata, an ironic choice when you consider that two of his own films have been remade by Hollywood studios, who then put him in charge of a remake of his own Ring 2. But it's not hard to see what attracted Nakata to the project, given his own horror track record. Repeatedly his films have centred around strong-willed female characters, single mothers who take on dark supernatural forces to protect their children (Ringu, Dark Water), and he has clearly recognised this element in this story. Putting aside the fact that the film requires no remaking, Nakata has a difficult line to walk, in his approach to its subject matter and in the satanic temptations of CGI. But even more crucial is the casting, and given the sheer dedication and heart-pulling conviction of Barbara Hershey's performance here, I'd say he's got a serious task on his hands.*

sound and vision

Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a good transfer that falls short of great by nature of its sometimes imperfect black levels and weak shadow detail. This mainly affects darker scenes – elsewhere the contrast appears decent enough. There is some visible grain, but sharpness and colours are generally fine.

The soundtrack is a somewhat unusual Dolby 4.1 (the two rears act in unison) and does its job rather well, with some good use of surround effects at key moments, especially evident in the electrical attack witnessed by the parapsychologists.

extra features

The only inclusion here is a trailer (1:23), which is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and in OK shape visually but a bit fluffy on the sound front.

summary

An often overlooked, easily misjudged and certainly undervalued horror work that treads on tricky turf but acquits itself well, its creepy atmosphere, gripping narrative and strong central characters underscored by a rightly troubling subtextual examination of domestic violence. The DVD does the job without shining too brightly, but is certainly good enough to get the spine shivers on the move. Whether a re-release will accompany the eventual DVD incernation of Nakata's remake, we will have to see.



* The remake fell through and has been pushed back to 2010, and even then only as a provisional project with no director or stars attached as yet.

The Entity

USA 1982
110 mins
director
Sidney J. Furie
starring
Barbara Hershey
Ron Silver
David Labiosa
George Coe
Margaret Blye
Jacqueline Brookes
Richard Brestoff
Michael Alldredge
Raymond Singer

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Surround 4.1
languages
English
subtitles
non
extras
titles
distributor
20th Century Fox
review posted
2 November 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews