15 April 2010

Movie Review: The Entity

The Entity (1981)
Directed by Sidney J. Furie. Starring Barbara Hershey, Ron Silver, David Labiosa, Margaret Blye, Alex Rocco.

From its short description—an invisible paranormal creature brutally sexually assaults an attractive single woman numerous times—you might think that The Entity is a sleazy, sexed-up exploitation film, like many of the low-budget Exorcist clones that clogged up drive-ins during the 1970s. But the film defies expectations and plays as an A-budget “class” picture, much like The Omen. It acts like a mash-up of a serious rape drama and a ghost story.

Well, is that a good thing? Depends on your expectations, I imagine. I ended up liking the movie, but sometimes the dead-pan exterior turns ludicrous. And I liked that, too. No matter how you try to play it, The Entity concerns a woman getting beaten and ravaged by an unseen force, and that’s going to look occasionally absurd, espcially when the unseen “entity” (hey, the title!) occasionally manifests its power through Jacob’s Ladder-esque lightning bolts, green laser lights, Atari 2600 sound effects, and a hilariously overused guitar thrumming soundtrack accompaniment. On top of all this, the invisible attacker, when it doesn’t get its way, slams down on the accelerator on its victim’s car and drives her on a wild drive to the Santa Monica pier. This is where you drag out your Toyota Prius jokes. Caution: Joke will date rapidly.

The weighty seriousness with which the movie handles the parapsychologist nuts who try to help out single mother Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) with her little paranormal home-intruder problem also flops into hysterics at times. A year later, Poltergeist would find a more effective formula for using parapsychologists armed with pseudoscience to battle the supernatural. The Entity sometimes gets close to the balance, and then backs off from it, making you long for the combination of Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein that made Poltergeist such a trippy yet realistic film.

(Actually, The Entity got released in the U.K. in September 1982 and in U.S. in February 1983, after the release of Poltergeist. However, the movie was shot in 1981 and originally planned for release the same year.)

The Entity at least tries to act like a horror film for adults, a rarity in the early 1980s, and it abandons the religious horror of the previous decade—no exorcists, demons, or Catholic iconography—to focus on a psuedoscience-fiction approach. The male lead is psychiatrist Dr. Sneiderman (Ron Silver) who opposes the supernatural explanation for Carla’s attack at every opportunity. He sometimes comes across as too dismissive and aggressive as he violates some patient-therapist barriers (like hanging out at Carla’s house), but it’s easy for the viewers to see his point of view on all this insanity. A psychiatrist in the real world would take this same rational approach to the problem, assuming the victim was suffering hallucinations based on earlier trauma.

Dr. Sneiderman is far more sympathetic than the cavalier hospital board, who are about the lousiest bunch of “blame the victim” therapists I’ve seen in anything outside a ‘50s sex-education film strip. (One of the doctors—a woman, nonetheless—asks Carla Moran if she would feel “it reflected on her as a woman” if the attacker stopped its assaults and went away. Huh? “The rapist stopped hurting me. I don’t feel pretty anymore.”)

Dr. Sneiderman at one point suggests to Carla that the attacks may have a connection to her feelings about her children, particularly her teenage son (David Labiosa). As strange as the doctor’s suggestion that Carla is imagining her son ravishing her in some sort of reverse Oedipal Syndrome sounds, the film actually helps this illusion with an early scene between Carla and her son that doesn’t feel right. In fact, viewers can be forgiven if at first thinking that Labiosa is playing Hershey’s young lover instead of her son. The script drops this fast, but the subtext is another of the film’s amusing odds and ends hurled about.

On a scene-by-scene basis, the realistic drama approach of The Entity is effective, especially with performers like Barbara Hershey and Ron Silver. The overall combination of elements is what knocks it into Weirdsville. The most shocking moment in these drama segments is when Carla suggests that the only way she can solve her problem is to “give in” to her attacker, let it do what it wants so that it won’t kill her or hurt her family. This is a surprising and frank moment, and unfortunately it reflects too closely what many abused woman have decided when their options for help get closed down: that for their own safety they will passively let their abusive husbands/boyfriends have their way with them. It’s a disturbing moment where the film’s aspirations to a serious domestic abuse drama actually work. Thankfully, Carla does at last choose to fight… although in an utterly bizarre way.

In its finale, The Entity kneels to the Gods of Science Fiction and goes full-blown Ghostbusters on us—just minus the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. The parapsychologist kooks, under the leadership of Dr. Cooley, concoct a ridiculously expensive scheme (since when was UCLA’s Department of Parapsychology funded better than NASA? and does UCLA even have a Parapsychology Department?) with reconstructed house, emergency panic-room safe zones, and robot-servo helium guns. I would say that the film “rides off the rails,” but it’s such an enjoyably crazed ride off the rails that I can’t complain. And the movie wants us to take it with funeral parlor seriousness! Man, I love the ‘80s.

Big points plus two free bonus plays for Barbara Hershey for throwing herself into a tough part. It couldn’t have been easy on the set faking these violent assaults on herself, imagining an invisible man brutalizing her. That the scenes sometimes turn weird/funny isn’t a comment on her performance, but on the odd effects and music and the strange prosthetic body used to simulate the unseen attacker’s groping. Effects achieved by a Mr. Stan Winston, pre-Terminator, by the way. A cheaper, sleazier film might have gotten away with this a bit better; but it also wouldn’t have had an actress as skilled as Hershey in it either. She tackles the material like going for Oscar, and I thank her for it. I’ll admit a personal liking for the actress because she appeared in two of my favorite non-nostalgia ‘80s movies, Hannah and Her Sisters and Hoosiers.

The Entity contains a few good shocks and scares. The title character makes some sudden attacks at unexpected moments, which adds a general unease to many scenes, since you never know when it will suddenly strike Carla with its invisible sledge-hammer fists. Direct Sidney J. Furie changes the style frequently enough, sometimes with build-up, sometimes with none at all, to keep the attacks unpredictable. The movie never manages true terror, however, because the collision of serious drama and crazy effects sequences is more strange than frightful.

The only true negative I can lob at a film that accidentally makes its flaws work in its favor is that it throws up its hands in the coda and gives up. “We didn’t know how to end this. Is a text crawl at the end okay?” No, it’s not… but I’ve been highly entertained for the last two hours, so you’re free to go.

Epilogue: Actor Ron Silver died March of last year from cancer at age sixty-two. He had a brilliant acting career on stage, screen, and television. His talents will be missed.