Sidney Furie’s disturbing, ambiguous 80s poltergeist tale brings up difficult issues surrounding sexual assault.
Sidney J. Furie’s sunshine-set supernatural horror, The Entity, is based on an alleged true story, ‘a story so shocking, so threatening, it will frighten you beyond all imagination’. Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is the single mother of three children, a teenage boy (David Labiosa) and two younger girls, struggling to get by in Southern California. Our brief introduction to Carla is set to menacing, clanging noises; after an exhausting day, she returns to the safety of her modest bungalow, only to be viciously attacked in her own bed by an unseen assailant. Her cries bring her son running, but a search of their home uncovers nothing – no perpetrator, no forced entry, no unlocked doors.
The Entity is in classic 80s ghost-story territory, even released in the UK in the same month and year as Poltergeist. But where Poltergeist mostly focuses on the fears and horror of losing a child, The Entity exploits sexual violence for frights. The first attack sees Carla beaten, before a pillow is placed over her head while she is raped. It’s a harrowing scene, shot mostly in close-up, Carla tormented, writhing, trying to escape the incredibly violent, yet mysterious assailant; Hershey, throughout the film, seems genuinely terrified. The assaults only get more vicious as the films goes on; and although the initial assaults mostly show her horrified reactions, the camera pulls out further as the attacks go on, her body later fully exposed as she is groped and brutalised (though some dated special effects lessen the impact of the exploitation).
Without any proof, Carla refuses to go to the police, and it is only when she is involved in a car crash, the vehicle allegedly taken over by this poltergeist, that she ends up in hospital, visited by the psychiatrist Dr. Sneiderman (Ron Silver). Is she suffering from female hysteria, the assaults self-inflicted manifestations of her sexual desires, a product of her troubled history with men (though discredited, the Freudian view on hysteria is clearly the doctor’s preferred explanation)? Or is there an evil, supernatural force, an entity, stalking her? Furie keeps it ambiguous, but there’s no doubt that Carla’s sexuality (with her shame and pleasure) is somehow to blame.
While there are still a few frightening, suspenseful scenes, the film’s tone changes in the second half of the film, when Carla meets a team of parapsychologists at the local university, who are just as eager to exploit her to prove their own theories about the supernatural, devising an elaborate, and ridiculous, experiment to trap the poltergeist. The film becomes less horror, and more a battle of wills between reason and a belief in the occult.
Given the recent success of Stranger Things, this re-release of The Entity couldn’t be better timed, with its similar depiction of a haunted, hysterical woman (Winona Ryder), and its use of music and sound, with Charles Bernstein’s electronic score predating Stranger Thing’s analogue-synth soundtrack. While the acting, with the general exception of Hershey and Silver, is weak, the film dated, and the story sometimes unconvincing, The Entity remains a gripping, if uncomfortably ambivalent, supernatural tale.