For most of its lifetime, the horror film has been looked down upon, by sneering critics who saw them as being of little value, by teachers and parents who believed they corrupted the young, even by the studios who saw them as cheap and disposable. It was not until the late sixties and through the seventies that a series of unexpected successes both in terms of critical reception and box office success brought a measure of respectability to the genre.
Robert Wise’s The Haunting demonstrated that personal fears could be deeper than jump scares but it was not until the end of that decade that Roman Polanski brought European arthouse cool to Rosemary’s Baby and an Academy Award nomination for Ruth Gordon. The trend continued with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, nominated for ten Oscars and winning two with rare recognition given to all the featured performers and Friedkin, and The Shining, crafted by the great Stanley Kubrick himself.
Crucially, all these films were adapted from literary sources: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the others retaining the titles of the novels by Ira Levin, William Peter Blatty and Stephen King, as was Sidney J Furie’s The Entity adapted from a 1978 novel by Frank De Felitta, another film which fits into this strand of intelligent, mature horror, well-acted and driven by character and situation rather than shock.
Released in February 1983, seven months after Tobe Hooper’s hugely successful Poltergeist, it is superficially similar in concept but proceeds down a very different path, examining a far darker side of the possibilities of a house haunted by malevolent forces than beset the Freelings in their newly built estate over a former cemetery in what is, produced by Steven Spielberg, ultimately a crowd-pleasing roller coaster.
Inspired by the 1974 case of Doris Bither of Culver City, California, De Felitta adapted his own novel for director Furie whose broad resume included a number of musical films, Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones, Diana Ross’ Lady Sings the Blues and Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer as well as the thrillers The Ipcress File with Michael Caine and The Naked Runner with Frank Sinatra, Damien‘s Barbara Hershey already a well-known star when she took the role of single mother Carla Moran having made fifteen films in as many years beyond her parallel television career.
Living with her teenage son from her first brief marriage and her two daughters from her second, her businessman boyfriend working away from home, the safety of their middle-class suburban domesticity is shattered when Carla is violently attacked in her home by what she can only describe as an invisible assailant, but with no physical evidence other than the bruises and bite marks, she knows she cannot go to the police.
Unlike The Haunting, Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, there is no question over the sanity of Carla, the audience never asked to consider whether her experiences were only in her imagination. Instead, the brutal attacks are fully presented on screen and it is only other people she must convince, in particular the sceptical psychiatrist Doctor Phil Sneiderman (Ron Silver, later to star in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood and Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel) whom she turns to for help.
Like the work of Nigel Kneale, The Stone Tape and Quatermass, the ultimate approach to the entity is of an explainable phenomenon and so the weapon of choice is to use science against against it, first to capture it on film then to hold it in captivity, a dangerous challenge which comes with no guarantees of success or safety for Carla.
Throughout it is Hershey’s film, strong for her children but frightened for herself, refusing to be a victim and certain of her own mind even in the face of the unexplainable, both she and Silver aided by De Felitta’s intelligent script which is unafraid to cross-examine Carla and expose her difficult childhood and teenage years, though to modern audiences the two hour running time may seem overly drawn out and talky.
With a supporting cast which includes Max Headroom‘s George Coe as Doctor Weber, dissecting Carla with one meeting and blaming everything on her inability to cope with the responsibilities of life, more practical assistance is found in the team of parapsychologists led by Doctor Elizabeth Cooley played by Jacqueline Brookes who had featured in prominently in John Irvin’s adaptation of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story but is perhaps best remembered as Starfleet Admiral Brand in the Star Trek The Next Generation episode The First Duty.
Like the entity itself, the film feeds off the feeling of being insecure and vulnerable in your own home and the violence is all the more effecting for the realism with which it is depicted, initially conveyed principally through Hershey’s performance though later with prosthetics built by a team led by legendary makeup artist Stan Winston, while with a main theme which inhabits the same sonic landscape as The Exorcist‘s Tubular Bells, composer Charles Bernstein would soon become famous for his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Available on Blu-ray for the first time from Eureka, the remastered print is flawless and shows the cinematography of Stephen H Burum to great advantage, switching between askew tight focus on the characters and wider framings isolating Carla from those around her. With only a trailer the absence of other special features is a disappointment as the film surely deserves them, though with the deaths of Silver, Coe, Brookes and De Felitta, who also wrote the novel and screenplay of Audrey Rose, sadly very few of the key players remain available.