Thursday, October 10, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: E is for The Entity (1982)

As the sun goes down and the shadows grow long creeping fingers over the city of Los Angeles, California, we meet Carla Moran as she finishes up a menial secretarial shift and then rushes to her night school vocational training in an earnest effort to improve this single mother of three’s financial status.

Upon returning to her home in Culver City, Carla (Hershey) checks in with her oldest son, Billy (Labiosa), who says his sisters, Julie and Kim (Ryan, Gaffin), were already put to bed. With a thank you for all he does for the family, Carla kisses Billy goodnight and moves to turn in herself. But while sitting on the bed to decompress from yet another day’s grind, Carla is suddenly and viciously punched in the mouth by some unseen presence. The startled woman is then violently thrown onto the bed, where a pillow is forced over her face as this brutal phantom assault continues.

Then, when the pillow finally falls away, Carla’s screams wake up the whole household. And while Billy does a quick search of the entire house, thinking her attacker might still be inside, he finds nothing and confirms all the doors and windows are locked. But despite his best efforts to convince his mother that this was all just a bad dream, Carla isn’t so sure. Something did attack her, but she saw no one.

The following night, as Carla warily crawls into bed the temperature in the room drops so suddenly and considerably, her breath becomes visible followed by an overwhelming stench of rotted meat. And when her furnishings start having seizures and spill their contents, Carla springs from the bed, gathers her family, and seeks shelter with Cindy Nash, her best friend. But while Cindy (Blye) welcomes them in, her husband, George (Alldredge), does not, who never made a secret of his disdain for Carla’s lifestyle -- three different kids from three different men etc. And while they argue, after this brief respite, Carla sneaks her kids out of their apartment and they spend the day in the car at the beach.

But Cindy catches up with them later, hoping Carla will explain why she bailed and what’s frightening her so much. And she does, mostly, leaving out the spectral molestation, and when Cindy spends the night, sharing the bed with Carla, and nothing preternatural happens, a relieved Carla is ready to write off the whole thing as a combination of a bad dream, fault lines, and faulty plumbing. At least she was until her moving car suddenly becomes possessed by unseen hands and feet and nearly gets herself and several others killed.

After this harrowing incident, at Cindy’s encouraging, Carla seeks out professional help in the form of Dr. Phil Sniederman (Silver), a psychiatrist, who listens intently to his patient’s tale of being attacked and raped by a ghost, multiple times. Convinced this is all in her mind, Sniederman convinces a reluctant Carla to undergo continued therapy to see if they can solve her problem. 

Unfortunately, the more Sneiderman digs into the woman’s fragile psyche the more the spectral attacks on Carla escalate in both frequency and severity. And despite physical evidence of bite-marks and bruising after being sexually assaulted by what she described as three ghosts in her bathroom, Sneiderman feels these are self-inflicted and part of a delusion that stems from accrued physical and emotional trauma sustained during her adolescent years.

Seems Carla ran away at sixteen to escape years of mental, physical, and sexual abuse from her overly religious father. She fell for an unstable drug-addict and was pregnant by him when he died of an overdose. Several other relationships with much older men and two more children followed; and now, Sniederman believes these psychotic “masturbatory” episodes were initially triggered when things started getting serious in a matrimonial sense with her latest boyfriend, Jerry Anderson (Rocco); and even goes so far to suggest Carla has incestuous feelings for her son in an effort to get his patient to voluntarily commit herself to a sanitarium.

This, obviously, backfires completely. And after a subsequent spectral attack, this time in front of her children, where Billy is injured while trying to defend his mother, fracturing an arm, a near hopeless Carla realizes she must seek help elsewhere. And find help she does, in the damnedest of places...

When asked, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), will vehemently deny they ever had such a thing as a Parapsychology Department. Nope, what they had was a non-sanctioned Parapsychology Lab run on campus; big difference, trust me; but even in this lessened academic form it was still a bit of an embarrassment to the board of regents, which is still in denial some forty years later after the lab was shut down in 1978 after operating for nearly a decade.

Now, the lab that shall not be named was founded in 1968 by Dr. Thelma Moss. A graduate of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Moss originally pursued a career in showbiz as an actress under her maiden name, Schnee, but made the biggest impact co-writing the script for an Alec Guiness vehicle based on the novels of G. K. Chesterton -- Father Brown, The Detective (1954), and the science fiction yarn, The Colossus of New York (1958), where a human brain is transplanted into a robot body and must deal with the existential crisis of losing his humanity before going on a rampage. But battles with crippling depression derailed her career, stemming from the loss of Moss’s husband to cancer right after the birth of their daughter.

But after some intensive psychotherapy, that included the use of LSD, Moss recovered and returned to academia in the 1960s, earning a PhD in psychology at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and earned a professorship there. And this role offered her the freedom to explore things outside the normal bounds of science and understanding as she started teaching a class in Parapsychology, where she expounded on things like alternative medicine, clairvoyance, ESP, and paranormal activities -- read ghosts and hauntings. Her research expanded when Moss was allowed some lab space on the fifth floor of the NPI building, which was staffed completely by volunteers since there was no funding, most of who came in to be tested and wound up staying thanks to Moss’s welcoming attitudes on such things.

Barry Taff and Kerry Gaynor were two such volunteers who thrived under Moss’ tutelage as research assistants. Together, these two would run experiments for a psi-development group, which tried to tap into psychic abilities in otherwise normal people. Taff and Gaynor also claimed to have investigated nearly 500 alleged haunted locations in the greater Los Angeles area.

When one of these calls were received, the researchers would first conduct a long psychological and personal evaluation of the subject to weed out the kooks and frauds. In later interviews, Gaynor said, “Many of the team’s investigations involved sitting and waiting to document paranormal occurrences, and often nothing would happen. But other times, some amazing things would occur.” Objects would move by their own volition, or anomalous lights would appear. Most happenings were relatively benevolent, but some were not. “No one likes these things to happen because it’s very destabilizing, traumatizing,” Taff added.

And then things really got weird in August of 1974 when two women approached the two men in a Westwood bookstore near the UCLA campus. Having overheard their conversation on what constitutes a haunting, one of the women, a Doris Bither, said her home was experiencing everything they’d mentioned and could they help her get rid of whatever was causing it.

During the preliminary investigation at her home on Braddock Drive in Culver City, which was in such a state of disrepair it had been condemned, twice, Taff and Gaynor learned that Bither, a petite woman in her 30s, was the product of a broken home, raised by alcoholics who eventually disowned her, had suffered through a number of failed and abusive relationships after, and had a rather contentious relationship with her four children -- all of whom had different fathers, giving the place a really "bad vibe." And as she described the strange phenomenon that had allegedly occurred it became quite obvious that the woman wasn’t telling them everything until she finally broke down and claimed several ghosts had raped her on multiple occasions.

With that admission, both Taff and Gaynor felt this poor woman needed some serious psychiatric help and ended the session, figuring that was the end of that. But Bither contacted them again a few weeks later, claiming others were now witnessing these paranormal activities in her home. Encouraged by the multiple corroboration, Taff and Gaynor did return and over the next several weeks they and their team bore witness to “extreme temperature drops, repulsive smells of rotting flesh, strange lights, and what can be best described as a full-bodied apparition.” Witnesses also reported erratically moving balls of bright green light, some of which were caught on film, that eventually coalesced into the upper torso of a human figure.

Thus, “The Entity Case” became one of the most well documented and scientifically researched haunting of all time. And at some point, both Taff and Gaynor realized it wasn’t the house being haunted but Bither herself. The case would inspire author Frank De Felitta, who was one of those eyewitnesses to the phenomenon on Braddock Drive, to write the novel, The Entity, which was loosely based on the Bither case. And De Felitta adapted his book into a screenplay for Sidney J. Furie’s film version of The Entity (1982), which, like De Felitta’s book, paints Bither’s surrogate, Carla Moran, in a slightly better, and far more stable light, making her much more sympathetic as a character struggling through this horrific insanity.

Beyond that, the book and the movie stick pretty close to the facts as presented by Taff and Gaynor, including the fateful meeting in the bookstore as Carla and Cindy, who finally saw the poltergeists in action as they destroyed her apartment, are there looking for literature on strange phenomenon since the rational approach has failed Carla miserably.

Here, Carla meets Gene Kraft and Joe Mehan (Brestoff, Singer, subbing in for Taff and Gaynor), two research assistants of Dr. Cooley (Brookes, subbing in for Moss), head of the Parapsychology Department of a nearby (and nameless) university. And while highly skeptical of her claims, Carla runs into a bit of luck when her tormenting entities do her a favor and put on a show for her guests. Thus, with Cooley’s cautious blessings, Kraft and Mehan set-up shop in Carla’s home to try and quantify what they’re seeing and hopefully capture it on film.

With a new found confidence from her “gathered army,” Carla is able to make the entity appear on command, which appears considerably weaker than before as it puts on another spectacular light show. But after the session wraps up early when Carla’s boyfriend comes home from a business trip a few days early and all the others clear out, he is witness to the most brutal attack yet when unseen hands fondle and crush Carla’s breasts and then knock Jerry away when he tries to help. To add even more confusion, Billy thinks Jerry, whom he never liked, is attacking his mom and goes after him while his mom is continually brutalized by the entity.

When it’s all over and Carla recuperates from her latest injuries, a terrified and overwhelmed Jerry bails and is never heard from again. Meantime, since his former patient won’t listen to reason, Sneiderman has been working hard behind the scenes at the university to “save” Carla from these spookshow quacks. Seems his supervisor, Dr. Weber (Coe) is well aware of Dr. Cooley’s work but his hands are tied due to campus politics. As for Carla, well, she’s reached the breaking point after this latest attack. But just when all hope seems lost, Kraft and Mehan devise a hair-brained plan where they think they can not only capture the entity but hold it indefinitely...

When De Felitta was working on the novelization of The Entity Case he was kinda stuck for an ending as the real scenario with Bither kind of just petered out when she up and moved to Texas without really telling anyone. And so, he turned to Taff and Gaynor and asked what would they have done if money was no object. And what they came up with was a controlled experiment in a staged environment, where the endgame was to capture and freeze the entity with a stream of liquid helium, which would allow them to determine its mass and shape.

Both the novel and film latched onto this hypothetical climax, with a that desperate Carla agreeing to participate in this elaborate and highly dangerous trap, where a full mock-up of her home is created inside a gymnasium with every room under surveillance by video camera. Suspended above are several tanks of helium, which feed into a remote controlled dispensing nozzle. And after getting wind of all this, Sneiderman once more fails to get the plug pulled through channels. He also fails to talk Carla out of going through with it but he is allowed to observe in the command center along with Cooley, Weber, and the others.

But when the entity finally arrives, it blows a big hole in their carefully laid out plan when it seizes control of the liquid helium apparatus, and then uses it to herd Carla through the house until she reaches the safety of a protective plexiglass cage. Unable to get at her, her tormentor unleashes another psychic blast that shatters the cage. And here, at her most vulnerable, Carla stands defiant, saying even if it kills her the damnable thing will never have her again. What happens next, well, it could probably be interpreted in several ways. For certain, the tanks holding the helium rupture and dump their contents in one giant gush.

Thankfully, Sneiderman is able to swoop in and whisk Carla out of harm's way before she is flash-frozen to death. The entity wasn’t so lucky as a giant iceberg is formed in the center of the gym, trapping it inside, giving the observers and the audience a sense of the enormous scale of the infernal thing. But the ice cannot hold and this malediction is able to break free and disappear. However, the ice did hold long enough to prove to Sneiderman that Carla had been telling the truth all along. As for Dr. Weber, well, the verdict is still out.

Several days later, Carla returns to her home as her family works to pack all of their belongings. She is the last one out when the front door slams shut in front of her and a demonic voice says, "Welcome home, [rhymes with bunt]!" But Carla is no longer afraid of the entity, refuses to acknowledge it, and calmly opens the door, exits the house, gets in the car with the rest of her family and drives away never to look back.

Despite their plan going completely off the rails, the near death of their test subject, and a total failure to capture the deadly poltergeist, The Entity plays out as a victory for Parapsychology with the rational Sneiderman converted and Weber being called out for refusing to believe what he just saw. In real life? Not so much.

As stated earlier, Bither kind of lost interest and moved away, though she claimed the attacks still happened but with less intensity after she left the house on Braddock Drive. (The film ends with a closing disclaimer saying the same thing happened to their protagonist.) Later, Bither would claim to have been impregnated by one of the ghosts but this was later ruled a “hysterical pregnancy.” She eventually died in 1999 of congestive heart failure.

As for the Parapsychology Lab, at some point in the mid-1970s Moss got a little too obsessed with her research on Kirlian photography, which is the study of electrical coronal discharges of the human body; a phenomenon which Moss felt was a breakthrough in astral projection. Her other worked suffered, and she stopped publishing -- a big no-no in a research university like UCLA. Taff tried to take up the slack, applying for grants to continue the lab’s research but was denied. And then in 1978, with a regime change at the top of the NPI’s hierarchy, the lab was officially shut down. Shortly after, Moss was terminated. She died in 1997, but as of today, both Taff and Gaynor are still at it and are considered the top experts in the field of the paranormal.

As for the movie that was “based on a true story” of their exploits, The Entity was one of the inaugural efforts of the newly-established American Cinema International Productions. Originally, the novel had been optioned to Roman Polanski but his recent arrest on statutory rape charges in 1977 soon had that coward on the run. Enter Sidney Furie, whose take on the material is not a pleasant film-watching experience -- just as it should be. Nasty and quite brutal in spots, Furie and his cinematographer Stephen H. Burum’s crash-cuts, extreme close-ups, and Dutch angles might've been shooting for a gritty realism but their end results might prove a little too voyeuristic and lecherous for some as the camera lingers and lingers during the multiple sexual assaults as Charles Bernstein’s discordant and pulsing soundtrack beats the audience over the head with the unrelenting ‘hammer and tong’ of it's significance.

In an interview with Rue Morgue Magazine in 2012, Furie claimed he did not consider The Entity to be a horror film in spite of its extreme imagery, unsettling atmosphere and horrific plot. Instead, Furie said he considers The Entity to be more of a supernatural thriller. And while that might’ve been what he was shooting for, I’m not sure it quite reached that kind of legitimacy -- especially with that bonkers ending. And like with a lot of other big studio prestige pictures, a horror label is just north of being labeled as pornography. Which I personally think is a crock of shit.

Apparently, Barbara Hershey accepted the role of Carla Moran just ten days prior to production after the likes of Jill Clayburgh, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, and Bette Midler all turned it down over the lurid content. Hershey was also hesitant but Furie assured her all the nude scenes would be done with a body double or prosthetics during the spectral rapes -- practical FX overseen by the late Stan Winston that hold up fine. "I was frightened,” said Hershey in a later interview. “But I knew that Sid saw potential in the film to approach the subject from a humanistic and psychiatric viewpoint, from a mother's viewpoint ... and I felt it was a worthwhile risk."

Some feel The Entity is feminist at its core, while others, like film scholar Daniel Kramer called it “a parable for female sexual victim-hood,” citing how Carla Moran as a woman "goes head-to-head with a gaggle of men (including the ‘entity’ itself). If the men of the film do not undermine her credibility or sanity, they objectify her, exploit her victim-hood, belittle her ability to take control of her unfortunate circumstances, and ultimately give her the dignity of a glorified lab rat."

This theory is reinforced in the climax when even though Carla has stood down the entity it falls to Sneiderman to rescue this fare damsel from this makeshift laboratory maze. With this latest viewing, I also felt there was a strong allegory of what faces a survivor of a rape, where she is met with constant skepticism and people in authority don’t believe the victim, judge her on her past, forcing her to relive the experience over and over and over again, and all the while trying to convince her it was all in her head and, therefore, her own fault for being violated.

Is it any wonder, then, that Carla so rapidly embraced the irrational approach to her problem? The film -- and De Felitta’s book, clearly draws a line in the sand between the psychological and parapsychological approach to resolving the victim's dilemma by first showing the impotence of the former to amplify the 'last hope' of the latter. A rock-solid performance by Hershey and some top-notch FX work gives the film more punch than it probably deserved as the whole thing is almost undone by a fairly ridiculous climax where an ersatz group of Ghostbusters try to capture a spectral serial rapist with a glorified snow-blower, which goes about as well as you'd think.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's five reviews down with 21 more to go! Up Next: Boobs! In! Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

The Entity (1982) American Cinema Productions :: Twentieth Century Fox / EP: Michael Leone, Andrew Pfeffer / P: Harold Schneider / D: Sidney J. Furie / W: Frank De Felitta / C: Stephen H. Burum / E: Frank J. Urioste / M: Charles Bernstein / S: Barbara Hershey, Ron Silver, David Labiosa, George Coe, Margaret Blye, Jacqueline Brookes, Michael Alldredge, Richard Brestoff, Raymond Singer, Alex Rocco, Melanie Gaffin, Natasha Ryan

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