Barbara Hershey has a rapey ghost problem in this overlooked horror gem. Liam gives it another look.
Who made it?: Sidney J. Furie (Director), Frank DeFelitta (Writer), Harold Schneider (Producer), American Cinema Productions.
Who’s in it?: Barbara Hershey, Ron Silver, David Labiosa, George Coe, Margaret Blye, Jacqueline Brookes.
Tagline: “There is no escape from something you cannot see.”
IMDb rating: 6.6/10.
Back in the 1970s and early 80s, there was a real fascination with the supernatural and unexplained, with many stories based on true events often reported on news programmes or documentaries, ranging from the spoon-bending of Uri Geller to the bizarre happenings at real haunted homes (as in the case of the famous Enfield Poltergeist). It was the reports of hauntings, however, that really captured the imagination. During this period, it is of no surprise to learn that many of these true reports would be adapted into magazine articles or best-selling books and later developed for the big screen, including such titles as the The Exorcist (1973) and The Amityville Horror (1979).
In 1974, there was one report that sounded like it would make for a great film. It was the true story of Doris Bither, a single mother of four children from Culver City, California. Doris had suffered abuse from her parents and had been involved with several similarly abusive men, and was also a practising alcoholic. She also had another problem. Doris claimed that several malevolent spirits were residing in her house, tormenting her at night and even raping her.
A novel by Frank DeFelitta titled The Entity, based on Bither’s experiences, was a best-seller in 1978 and was snapped up by Twentieth Century Fox to make the motion picture. DeFelitta adapted his novel into a screenplay and the film went into production with a budget of nine million dollars. Sidney J. Furie, whose CV included Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones (1961) and Michael Caine’s The Ipcress File (1965), was hired as director. It would star Barbara Hershey in the lead role as Doris, renamed in the film as Carla Moran, and Ron Silver as psychological therapist Dr. Sneiderman.
The film opens up by quickly establishing the central character, Moran, as an attractive, hard-working and likeable single mother during the the opening credits, working as a receptionist by day and then hastily rushing to a night class. This is before returning home in the evening to her three children, two very young daughters and one much-older son in his late teens, who seems to have taken on the role of father figure in the house. It is not immediately obvious that the son, Billy (David Labiosa), is indeed her son and not perhaps a boyfriend, and this is a theme that will come up again later on in the film. The first attack on Carla comes only five minutes in. Whilst preparing for bed, Carla is struck around the face and then catapulted onto the bed and raped. After the assault, Carla screams out in terror and her children led by Billy dash to her rescue. He manages to convince his hysterical mother that she has had a nightmare.
Carla and her three children then flee the residence late at night and seek shelter at the home of her good friend, Cindy (Margaret Blye). Cindy enquires cautiously as to what happened and Carla eventually reveals that she was raped. After Carla explains that “there was no-one there” and the attacker “just vanished,” Cindy begins to question her sanity and suggests that she visit a therapist. The next morning, Carla visits one as suggested, but during the journey, another attack occurs in a moving car; the unknown force visibly affecting the peddles of the vehicle and potentially causing a traffic accident. At the therapists, Dr. Sneiderman clearly doesn’t believe her and concludes that Carla is disturbed, suggesting tests and further meetings.
That evening is when the most graphic assault happens. In a longer tension-building sequence, Carla runs a bath and undresses before relaxing in the tub for a moment. Suddenly, the bathroom door slams shut and she is subjected to what appears to be gang rape. The next day, during another meeting with Dr. Sneiderman, in which Carla exhibits bruises and bite marks, he suggests she is manifesting the attacks herself subconsciously due to some deep-seethed psychological trauma. Carla reveals that she had been sexually-abused by her father, and her first husband was killed whilst she was pregnant with Billy aged just sixteen. The increasingly forthright Dr. Sneiderman, who is now showing signs of being sexually-attracted to Carla, himself jumps to the conclusion that her broken psyche has manifested the whole event and that she has developed incestuous feelings for her son.
She is later attacked again, this time in front of her children. Her son is also injured whilst trying to help. Later on, her boyfriend Jerry (Alex Rocco) visits and witnesses a very disturbing display which ends their fleeting relationship. A further eyewitness, this time her friend and chief supporter Cindy, sees her apartment destroyed by the entity whilst Carla seeks refuge with her. During a visit to a local book store, Carla and Cindy have a chance meeting with two parapsychologists who agree to visit her home. After observing paranormal phenomena, the two scientists agree to take on the case with the help of a third and more experienced colleague, Dr. Cooley (Jacqueline Brookes), who manages to coax the entity into making itself corporeal so they can trap it by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. This is in an elaborate final act involving a scale replica of Carla’s house in the university gymnasium.
Hershey provides an excellent performance as the vulnerable single mother with a troubled past, and the supporting cast – especially the parapsychologists – are great with their wide-eyed enthusiasm, reminding me of similar characters in later films such as Ghostbusters (1984) and Insidious (2010), the latter of which also stars Hershey. Silver’s Dr. Sneiderman is, however, rather over-assertive and could be seen as a second antagonist. Furie’s direction is sound; the supernatural attacks are staged using a number of close-ups and extreme camera angles, coupled with a pounding score by Charles Bernstein (A Nightmare on Elm Street) to create an intense feeling of shock-horror which is effective if not slightly repetitive. The director resists the urge show us too much on all counts. There is very little nudity in the film, apart from the one bathroom attack where we see a naked torso which may or may not be Hershey. The special effects are rather hit-and-miss. Stan Winston’s full-body cast provides the best and most memorable of all, allowing us to visibly see indentations of ghostly fingers and hands on Hershey’s naked body. Less spectacular, though, are the visual effects provided by William Cruse. The manifestation scene and the frozen entity look terrible, and this is surprising as Cruse had previously worked on visuals for The Amityville Horror and Tron (1982). Although, this was probably down to budget restrictions.
The Entity recouped over thirteen million dollars at the box office which is not especially good, however, the film’s reception on release was generally positive. Had the original release date scheduled for 1981 gone ahead, the film would most definitely have made more at the box office. By the time it was released in the US in February 1983, audiences had already seen Poltergeist (1982), which is actually similar in many ways but with far superior special effects.
In a time when Hollywood is constantly rebooting and remaking classic films, here is one that certainly could be remade and be better than the original. The Entity is indeed a good picture for its time and I would highly recommend it. However, it was based on true events but is not the true story of Doris Bither as reported back in 1974. Barbera Hershey’s character, apart from suggestions of child abuse, is really the polar-opposite to the person Bither was. There is indeed a great story to be told here, and with today’s capabilities, a remake of The Entity would be truly welcome.
Not even Heather Langenkamp had a bathroom episode this creepy.
- In a July 2012 interview published in Rue Morgue Magazine, Sidney J. Furie said that he did not consider this movie to be a horror film.
- An excerpt of Charles Bernstein’s score is sampled in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
- Martin Scorsese included The Entity in his “Top 11 Scariest Horror Films” list.