Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
There are times when a horror film is so deeply disturbing, so genuinely steeped in malice and savagery, that it seems to vanish from the memory of genre fans not because it lacks effectiveness, but because they’d rather not remember it. Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity is such a movie, possessing not an ounce of widespread audience appeal or salacious titillation, despite a plot that literally revolves around sex acts. Stylistically, it in many ways resembles another film from the same year, 1982’s Poltergeist—but where Poltergeist has a warm, Spielbergian emotional core provided by the Freeling family, The Entity has only utter revulsion for human callousness and universal sexism. Furie’s film is every bit as effective as Tobe Hooper’s far more famous haunted house tale, but it’s also orders of magnitude more disturbing. It possesses a premise so inherently hard to stomach that I suspect many horror fans have simply gone out of their way to never watch it, despite major endorsements from the likes of Martin Scorsese.
Count me among those people, until recently. The idea of The Entity—about a single mother who is suddenly and then repeatedly attacked and raped by an invisible force in her home—is uniquely disgusting, although in this case it was based on the real-life accounts of a woman named Doris Bither in the 1970s. Bither claimed to have suffered these phantom sexual assaults for years, and we can only pray that she was lying or mistaken due to mental illness, because the alternative is a reality so horrible that we dare not even imagine it. The idea that we could all be stalked by the most profanely and violently male presence without even being able to see the force accosting us would rob us of even the comforting delusion of being able to somehow defend ourselves.
Our protagonist here has been renamed Carla (Barbara Hershey), a mother of three children who first became pregnant as a teen, and we have every reason in the world to wish her the best. Unlike so many horror film protagonists, there’s no apparent divine or supernatural justice in the horrors that randomly beset her one day—she didn’t trespass where no human should have dared, or seek occult powers for her own. She’s literally just preparing for bed one day in the supposed safety of her own home when she’s suddenly and directly slapped in the face by something that isn’t there, before being thrown to the bed. Why did it even show up now, one wonders? Why not in the past decade? The Entity can’t tell us what it doesn’t know, and never do we understand an ounce more than what Carla understands. She displays superhuman resilience by not immediately giving up entirely in the face of what is happening to her, because her situation seems beyond hopeless.
Naturally, the world around Carla offers no practical help. Her absent boyfriend can’t be trusted to believe the information, and friends/family understandably suspect mental imbalances or drugs. The psychiatrist Carla meets takes an immediate interest in her case, but refuses to expand the realms of possibility to include the possibility of “supernatural stalkers.” Even the team of Poltergeist-style paranormal investigators who eventually learn of the case seem far more interested in proving the nature of life after death than in bringing Carla’s nightmare to an end with her intact. She’s treated as little more than bait by these people to test their theories, but what choice does she have but to acquiesce to their requests? What options do you have when you’ve apparently been singled out for punishment by a malevolent entity that can’t be physically stopped?
The personal nature of the attacks makes them some of the most difficult and invasive sequences of physical violence to watch on screen that I’ve seen in recent memory, which is only amplified by Charles Bernstein’s thudding, clanking orchestral score that accompanies each of the many attacks. The music strikes with a brutal, mechanical repetition that can’t help but evoke the act itself, while pioneering FX simulate Carla’s body being caressed by invisible hands in several shocking sequences. In some of these scenes, I was genuinely glad to later read that dummies and body molds had been used, for the sake of actress Barbara Hershey’s own psyche. Even still, I can only imagine that filming The Entity must have been genuinely harrowing, and I can’t imagine the trauma a sexual assault survivor would experience in actually watching the film. The 1982 feature likely predates the phrase “trigger warning,” but never has such a warning been more of a necessity.
Ultimately, The Entity is a portrait in stalwart resistance to a world that grinds people, and especially women, under its jackbooted heel. There’s little triumph to be found here at all—the only victories the protagonist wins are fairly hollow moral ones, but we admire her all the same for reaffirming time and time again that she intends to keep fighting. You can call a film like this an obvious spiritual forerunner to the modern likes of 2020’s Invisible Man reboot, but the savagery here eclipses it in every way, as does the transgressive horror. At least in The Invisible Man, we quickly come to understand the nature of what it is this woman is facing, and can hold out a hope of her overcoming it. The Entity presents such a terrifyingly blank slate in comparison, an amorphous mass of pure evil that may never be understood, much less conquered. I can’t genuinely blame any horror fan for not wanting to witness it, because this is not any form of “popcorn entertainment.” This is capital “H” Horror, plain and simple, and once seen it will likely be with you forever.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.