The Entity (1982)

Director: Sidney J. Furie
Composer: Charles Bernstein

Four thunderous low register piano notes, rendered grotesque by digital manipulation, rise from the darkness without warning and hammer hard into our souls. Then, the simple title of the film “The Entity” appears, its ambiguity unsettling in that it reveals nothing.

Entity titles

THE ENTITY. A blank space or object or thing or other onto which we can project our own fears. All this a simple warning perhaps to those of faint heart: turn away whilst you have the chance. Something/some thing is coming. And it is not going to be pretty or easy to watch.

Based on the Frank De Felitta book of the same name, Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982) is a unique title within the horror cinema canon. Barbara Hershey plays Carla Moran, a single mother who is terrorised by a formless entity that periodically attacks her. I had never heard of this film until I began reading Kier-la Janisse’s excellent House of Psychotic Women, an autobiographical exploration of the depiction of female neuroses in horror cinema. As Janisse describes, the film “explores the domestic abuse/woman-as-masochist stereotype by veiling it as a supernatural horror film”. Controversial at the time of its release due to its graphic depiction of sexual violence, the film takes it’s narrative from Felitta’s book which itself is based on a true story.

Straight after the title of the film in announced, we are introduced to Carla and her world. Though nothing of out of the ordinary appears to be happening on-screen (a typing class, the drive back to the family home where she kisses her young daughters goodnight) it is Charles Bernstein’s score that keeps us firmly on the edge of our seats. It refuses to back down after it’s stark, ominous opening. The score is reminiscent rhythmically here of that of Mike Oldfield’s music for The Exorcist (1973) but its orchestration is more lush, propelled by the unsettled romanticism heard in the lower register of the piano and yearning, mournful strings. There is very little time for us to remain complacent about the mundanity depicted on-screen however, for less than two minutes into the film we bear witness to the first of the attacks by the entity upon Carla.

According to the composer, “Sidney wanted [his] score to ask if the entity was an inner manifestation of a mental problem that Carla had or if it was indeed menacing her from the outer, real world.” The director also requested “high” and “low” dread motifs that would act as a compass for the location of the entity. Just before Carla is first attacked we hear a sustained synth notes and strings in the high register, indicating that the entity is nearby and could strike at any moment. The use of sustain is a commonality in horror scoring as it plays against our innate desire for harmonic resolution in music. A lack of resolution results in a feeling of unease when a note or chord is suspended in the soundtrack for a long period of time. When the entity finally attacks Carla the score shifts to a throbbing repetitive cue that is comprised of the low piano notes, kick drum, a cymbal being scraped and hit, and electric guitar. It is alarmingly aggressive, the aural equivalent of extreme violence. As a side note, this cue was actually utilised in Quentin Tarantino’s soundtrack for Inglorious Basterds (2009) to underscore the appearance of the menacing Hans Landa at a dinner with Joseph Goebbels.

We can see the score as thus: a dichotomy of the human and the otherworldly, and of good and evil. The human element of Carla is reflected in the acoustic instrumentation of the orchestra, it’s melodrama reflecting her helplessness and humanity in soundtrack cues such as “Carla” and “Glimmer of Hope”. The entity and its evil manifests in the score in the form of the electronic and affected acoustic instrumentation, and the entity itself even takes the form of electrical currents when it finally materialises in the film. Many films have used electronic instrumentation to connote a sense of “otherness”. From the theremins of 1950s science fiction that underscore alien life, to the synthesizer minimalism of John Carpenter’s score for Halloween (1978), The Entity continues this tradition of using electroacoustics to voice that which is not human or lacking in humanity.
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The final cue for the film (“End Credits” on the soundtrack release) does not end on a positive note. It returns to the urgency of the film’s opening music and, though onscreen Carla seems to have won back control of her life, Bernstein’s score suggests that Carla’s struggles with the entity are far from over.

(Quotes sourced from the soundtrack press release at Intrada)

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2 thoughts on “The Entity (1982)

  1. Great work Clare, and a brilliant choice. I love this score and it works wonderfully well in the film. It’s certainly my favourite of Bernstein’s, even ahead of his score for Nightmare on Elm St. The CD is great too with Bernstein deconstructed the layers of his music in the final track – something that should be done far more often! It’s a fascinating insight into his process and approach to the material.

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    1. Cheers, David! I actually watched the film on a whim a couple of weeks back and had no prior knowledge of its wonderful score, realising later that Bernstein was also the composer for ‘Nightmare’. I immediately felt compelled to write about it! And yeah, the bonus tracks on the CD release are great. As a composer myself, I’m always interested in hearing about the composition process in film scoring; the choice in orchestration, arrangement, when to let silence do the work etc. It is often very inspiring!

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