Sunday, March 4, 2012

#127: The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, 1982)

A film about ghost rape directed by the guy who made the Iron Eagle movies? Sounds like an entirely avoidable experience. Fortunately, it's much better than it has any right to be and is a solid, relentlessly suspenseful, not terribly exploitative ghost movie with a great Barbara Hershey performance holding the whole thing together. Martin Scorsese considers it one of the scariest horror films. It's also the third most accurate ghost rape movie ever made. (If you're keeping score, the first two are Ghost Dad and Free Willy 2.)

The Entity begins with single mother Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) going to work, then to a typing class, and finally home. She checks on her sleeping, pre-teen daughters, then goes to the garage to chastise her teenage son for leaving dirty dishes on the table and the refrigerator door open. She brushes out her hair, rubs some lotion on her skin, and gets ready for bed. Then, an invisible presence hits her in the face, throws her onto the bed, and sexually assaults her. She screams, her son rushes in, and Hershey tells him to search the house. No one is there, and all windows and doors remain locked. Her son convinces her it was a nightmare, but the attacks continue, and he slowly becomes a believer. Hershey, worried she's going nuts, starts seeing a psychologist (Ron Silver), who believes some childhood trauma is reemerging in Hershey's life and causing hysteria and hallucinations. We get some of the tired science vs. the supernatural debate in the movie's final third, but not enough to sink the film.

Frank De Felitta, the screenwriter and author of the novel, based his book and screenplay on a supposedly true story. That may be an enticing hook for those of you who believe in the supernatural, but I, an unbeliever in ghost rape due to my unbelief in ghosts, can take or leave it. Instead, Hershey's performance and Furie's deft handling of tension and release sucked me into this film and kept me engaged. Hershey's character is both an average woman and an intelligent one, and Hershey makes her a compelling, believable person. She never does anything stupid that lesser horror movies require their female leads to do. She doesn't sleep with her psychologist, she doesn't investigate dark corners of her home alone, she gets the fuck out of the room when it makes sense to get the fuck out of the room, she investigates the possibility she's suffering from a mental illness, she remains practical and determined throughout. She makes you believe she's the single mother of her three children. The actors share a convincing family chemistry. She's great. A lesser actress would have sunk this film.

I'll give Furie a little credit, too. He's hardly a unique visual stylist, but, as a solid journeyman storyteller, he doesn't intrude on the film with distracting overstylization, either. He has a good sense of when to use Charles Bernstein's effective score and when to use silence. (Tarantino used some of this score in Inglourious Basterds.) Most of the film was shot on location in real Los Angeles neighborhoods. The house is a real house and looks it. The shock scenes aren't over- or underused. He keeps the story moving, even at a slightly overlong running time of 125 minutes.

Furie's had a strange career, even by director-for-hire standards. Besides every Iron Eagle movie (with the exception of the third one), Furie also directed Michael Caine spy thriller The Ipcress File, Diana Ross-starring Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Rodney Dangerfield low point Ladybugs, and several episodes of Pamela Anderson's syndicated TV series V.I.P.

For those of you who share my intense dislike of exploitative rape and sexual violence scenes in horror films, I want to assure you that The Entity is not a film that will make you feel dirty. The assault scenes are disturbing, but mostly for what they leave out. The camera puts you in Hershey's shoes, not the attacker's, and the film has a barely hidden subtext about the hiding in plain sight institutional sexism women have to navigate through daily. Of course, the film was written and directed by men, so I don't want to make too much of this. However, Hershey's character is far more intelligent and multifaceted than most female characters in the majority of both genre and mainstream American films. How odd for a ghost rape movie.

The Entity is scary, in a great old-fashioned teenage sense. It feels real, and I jumped in my seat a handful of times. The filmmakers admirably steer clear of explaining the entity, why it's after Hershey, and what eventually happens to it. There is no secret reason from Hershey's past that brings the entity to her, no ancient curses or Indian burial grounds, no big reveal of who this entity used to be in a former life. This lack of explanation and avoidance of most ghost story cliches makes the movie far creepier and more plausible than the plot description led me to expect. I like this movie.

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