Sunday, August 22, 2010

THE ENTITY (1981)

Before the dark cloud of progressive illiteracy drenched Hollywood in its oppressive shade, there were sunnier days, when studios would pillage books for film ideas. I’m not sure how everything got so grim, but it probably has a lot to do with the film industry’s bloated structure, and their unwillingness to gamble on untested properties. That would involve risk, and at their current critical mass, one false investment could bring the whole precariously stacked mess crashing down with a visceral splat. That’s probably the logic behind the remake trend. Stuff like “Halloween” or “A Nightmare On Elm Street” already have built-in audiences. Why bother beating your own path out when someone else has already done it for you? There are still great, original scripts out there waiting to be realized. A remake of a proven formula, though, usually can’t lose. In challenge there is potential failure. Why chance it? As of this entry, there are even plans to remake “The Entity,” which is ironic since the original film was based on the novel by Frank De Filetta (“Audrey Rose,” “Dark Night of the Scarecrow”), who also adapted his work for the screen.

"The Entity" is probably one of the most heavily discussed horror films of all time. I’ve seen it put down as shoddy by some and revered by others as a feminist masterpiece. I saw “The Entity” for the first time in my early teens, and it evoked within me a genuine sense of dread and discomfort.

The movie focuses on Carla Moran, a single mother of three children, who inexplicably finds herself the sudden and target of spectral rapists, which repeatedly assault her throughout the film. Carla eventually finds herself questioning her own sanity when she seeks the aid of practical science. But when her children witness one of the assaults, she seeks out an alternative explanation. Soon, Carla finds herself caught between a group of well meaning paranormal investigators and a down to earth psychologist who’s grown emotionally attached to her.

There are a lot of potent ingredients that help this thing over hurdles to make it an effective horror film. The foremost driving element is Charles Bernstein’s nerve-rattling score, which almost feels like a tribute Bernard Herrmann’s work on “Psycho.” Bernstein, who should be considered amongst the best film composers of all time, elevated the quality of numerous cult and genre flicks with his scores and themes. Bernstein is also responsible for creating the iconic score for “A Nightmare On Elm Street.” Bernstein’s work on “The Entity” may well be the one thing that keeps this movie from eating shit, though. In fact, I think it makes the movie feel bigger than it actually is.

Barbara Hershey’s performance as the overall frayed Carla is this film’s other main flotation device. In fact, most of the performances in this film are strong. While “The Entity” is definitely augmented by great performances, a fantastic score, and an interesting topic, the actual story telling is pretty muddy. The monotony of the movie is only slightly cured by the jarring rape scenes. That might sound fucked up, but let’s face it, no one goes to see a horror movie for the exposition. You’re there to see the creepy shit happen.

One element that really bugs me about the story is that they never really explain why Carla has been targeted by these entities. The attacks begin abruptly and that’s all there is to it. In fact, there is one scene where the doctors ask Carla why the spirits have chosen her. Her response carries a hint of arrogance and sexual confidence that makes me wish Carla were more of an unreliable narrator who might actually be a nut job.

I’ve never read the book (though I own it), so I have no idea how it flows, but I suspect the script is a painfully condensed version of the story. I often find authors who adapt their work for the screen usually aren’t very good at editing for the screen. The whole thing usually winds up a casualty to the writer's desire to remain faithful to the source material.

The bright spots are almost tarnished by an ending that squats right over them and unleashes a three foot tide of total shit. It is truly the largest unintentional middle finger any movie has ever delivered. Check this out: so, these paranormal goofballs concoct some bullshit proto-T2 plot to trap the entities by building a replica of Carla’s home inside the local University gym. The set is outfitted with robotic arms that will capture the ghosts by hosing them down with liquid helium. You got that, right? LIQUID HELIUM. THEY'RE GOING TO FREEZE THE GHOSTS. Of course, shit goes awry and Carla narrowly escapes as the spirit is encased in a virtual polar cap, which it then proceeds to slowly fuck its way out of. Ultimately, it's a non-ending, and basketball season is pretty much fucked for that school. It's so bad it's infuriating. I think they knew that, too, because the film ends with the entity delivering the best movie quote ever that isn’t uttered by Kurtwood Smith.

"The Entity" is a marvelous book-end to 1979’s “The Amityville Horror.” Both movies are based on popular non-fiction novels. Both are incredibly flawed, but still effective and atmospheric. Both also have horrible fucking endings. And certainly not least, they both feature young Natasha Ryan, who plays Amy Lutz in “The Amityville Horror.”

Like "The Amityville Horror," "The Entity" was based on supposedly true events. The Carla Moran character is a composite of the real life Doris Bither, a woman who claims she was subjected to supernatural sexual assaults during the early 70s. Interestingly, Doris believed there were three entities, two of which would hold her down while a larger one would rape her. In the film, Carla has three children; two girls, and one boy. Doris had four children, one female, three males. The number of boys obviously correlates with the number of entities responsible for her rape. I always thought the gender of Doris’ children was somewhat relevant, and probably shouldn’t have been changed. Doris also seemed to have some familiarity with the entities, and was quoted as saying that they were Chinese. One of the most awesome aspects of the Bither case is that the eldest son claimed that the paranormal activity would intensify whenever he was blasting Black Sabbath or Uriah Heep. You can read about the case right here. You can also find an interesting interview with the middle Bither son on this site.

Over the years, many productions that dared delve into the supernatural world have encountered mysterious on-set problems. The foul luck which beleaguered both "The Exorcist" and "Poltergeist" perpetuated the myth that both films were cursed for meddling with topics best left alone. Well, there were apparently some problems on the set of the "The Entity," too. During one particular scene, Carla is attacked by the entity. Her son, Billy, attempts to intervene and is hurled across the room by the unseen force, breaking his arm. This is based on an identical anecdote from Bither, who's son apparently broke his arm trying to fend off the invisible assailant. When it came time to recreate this scene on set, David Labiosa, who plays Billy Moran, actually broke his arm while performing the stunt. Simultaneously, a curtain rod in the background was ripped down, inexplicably.

For some bizarre reason, 20th Century Fox produced an Atari game based on “The Entity.” In this lame duck piece of shit, you play a spirit trying to get to the other side. It’s not very vivid, though, so I guess you could pretend you’re trying to get into Barbara Hershey’s vagina. The game was actually never released, but you can download it right here.

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