I remember my friend, who had cable, making a special point to have me over when this film was on TV, so we could watch the scene in which we see invisible hands grope all over Barbara Hershey’s breasts in this movie. I didn’t recall much of the rest, but you know, that’s the kind of thing we were fascinated by at the time. So now, as an adult, how is it as a movie? Let’s find out!
We see Barbara as Carla Moran at work, then rushing to her typing class, where she doesn’t seem to be excelling. While this is happening, we have the credits, where we see that this is directed by Sidney J. Furie, who also did The Ipcress File and Iron Eagle I , II, and IV, and written by the author of the novel it is based on, by Frank De Felitta, who also wrote the similar Audrey Rose. Carla goes home and kisses her two young daughters, alone in bed, while you say “Wait a minute—so her kids are just unattended at home?” No, they’re under the care of Bill, Carla’s older son, who is a handsome Latin buck of about 17. Carla and Bill seem to be, ummm, CLOSE.
Carla’s in her room applying moisturizing lotion when she suddenly gets thrown onto the bed. A pillow is stuffed over her mouth, and she is raped. But there’s no one there! She freaks, and makes Bill look all over the house [we do indeed see Bill check every room in the house], until he tells her that there’s no one there and it must have been a bad dream. Carla goes into the bedroom—it seems to be the same night—when she gets cold and the room starts shaking like an earthquake. While the ghost attacks happen, the soundtrack plays a repeated, throbbing guitar hit, which is an unfortunate choice, as it comes off like pumped-up rock music, implying that the attacks and rapes are AWESOME, DUDE.
So Carla takes the kids over to her best friend Cindy’s. Around now you will have cause to become frustrated with the fact that Carla won’t tell Bill what HAPPENED, but is all coy—and time-wasting. We hear Cindy’s husband George, who immediately establishes himself as an asshole, ordering Cindy to bed without sympathy for Carla’s plight, and barking orders in the morning for Cindy to fetch his morning coffee. But there’s an undercurrent here about relations between the sexes at that time, 1981, so it doesn’t feel completely extraneous. In the morning Carla finally tells Cindy what happened, and Cindy suggests she get to a psychologist.
Carla and the kids spend the day at the beach, until they finally have to go home that night. Now Carla’s room was trashed by the prior attack, and by now you’re like “WHY won’t she show the kids?” to help get someone to believe her, but finally they do, and the ghost complies with making itself known as the kids are there. Then Carla grabs the butcher knife in order to sleep on the couch, but then Cindy shows up to sleep at HER house. By the way, the screenplay has repeatedly told us that Carla is too poor to afford to move out, and is in fact late on her rent right now. She’s a little bit of a wastrel loser, a fact that the movie gently elides over. By the way, last time we saw the bedroom, it was totally trashed, making you wonder who cleaned it up, if no one’s going in there.
Then—the entity comes for you in your car! Carla is driving along when something jams on the accelerator, and she’s almost in an accident. This sends her to the office of Ron Silver as Phil Sneiderman, who we’re just going to call “Phil” because I don’t want to keep typing out “Sneiderman.” He asks some questions, establishing that the ghost “was IN you” and “was a BIG man.” So the entity is hung. Carla goes home and this is where one can start to be frustrated at the time wasting-dithering of the movie… we see Carla pouring coffee… brushing her hair… drawing her bath… all seemingly in real time. She gets raped in the bathroom, her legs pulled apart by unseen hands. By this time you’re starting to feel really sorry for Barbara Hershey, who has to enact all these rapes, which, since there is no one there, are all about her torment and nothing about her aggressor. It begins to feel uncomfortably exploitive. But she now has physical bruises to show Phil and company, including bites in areas she couldn’t have reached herself. But no, Phil tells her, it’s all in her mind, and the bruises are hysterical manifestations. You see, he says, there are phases of life we never fully get out of, and sometimes they come back and rape you in your bathroom and cause bruises, but none of it really happened. And we find out that Carla had a lot of trauma in her young life, including a father who was a little too hands-on in his parenting. And then her first husband, with whom she had Billy, was violent and is now dead, and a second husband, much older than her, who is now in parts unknown. Could she be just manifesting all this herself?
SPOILERS > > >
So remember how we were saying certain aspects are beginning to seem a little exploitive? Well that shoots into the red zone when Carla is raped right smack dab in front of all three kids. At least this time they had the courtesy to leave her robe closed. Bill tries to help her, but is thrown across the room and soon has electricity shooting out of his fingertips. Now he’s all grown up and known as Magneto.
Then Carla goes to meet with a bunch of high-level psychologists who are comfortable in extremely smoky environments. After she leaves they gossip about what a crackpot she is, loose in the head. They think she’s just missing her absent boyfriend, and just as you’re like “Boyfriend?” he shows up—an HOUR into the movie. After never having been mentioned before. He is played by excellent character actor Alex Rocco, someone who should have become more of a star, but has worked steadily to this day. He’s always traveling and leaving Carla alone, cause for her to lay a mega passive-aggressive guilt trip on him. He promises that this trip will be his last, and then they can be together and settle down. She essentially tells him that if she wanted a bunch of hot air she’d move to Mexico City.
Then she’s at home, sleeping in bed, when the entity comes to call, this time lovin’ her all smooth and gentle-like, and here’s where we get one of this movie’s big special effects, in which we literally see Carla’s breasts be manipulated and squeezed by unseen hands. You can imagine all the jokes that were made in THAT special effects shop. The entity’s gentle ministrations bring Carla to orgasm, and then she wakes, and REALLY feels violated. Which is best dealt with by smashing mirrors. She’s next seen in Phil’s office, looking like a dust bunny with a face. Phil tells her that a few spectral rapes is no reason to let her personal appearance slide. No, silly, he tells her that she’s just a crazy wingnut, and if she really thinks about it, she’ll realize that she’s actually fantasizing about her son Bill raping her, and her two little girls helping him out by holding her legs open. This occurs during one of those high-impact therapy sessions where they’re both screaming at each other, but Carla can’t deal with the “obscene” accusation, and storms out. By the way, by now we’ve had numerous cause to note that director Furie is an enthusiastic employer of the split diopter, just loving to have both the extreme foreground and extreme background in focus—to the point where these shots seem to compose a full 15% of the film.
So Carla goes to chill at Cindy’s house, and we finally get a look at George, the asshole husband who let it cannot stand that someone else’s trauma might cause minor inconvenience for him. Here he’s upset that he might be a few minutes late for a cocktail party he doesn’t want to go to anyway. They’re not a few seconds out of the house when all the doors and windows explode inward, trashing the place. George and Cindy come back, and while George is all “Look what she did!” Cindy assures Carla that “She saw it,” and begs her “Please forgive me.” By now we’ve had cause to notice that the secondary characters are well-developed in this movie, probably due to its roots as a novel.
So Carla and Cindy head off to the occult section of the bookstore, where, a few seconds later, Carla overhears these other guys talking about some lame-ass ghostly manifestation, wherein Carla pops up and says they ain’t seen nothing yet. She invites them back to check out the place and finds them skeptical, until they smell a funny smell and the whole place starts to shake. This ghost isn’t one of those coy ones, always vanishing when others are present, no, he’s not shy. The two guys come back with some cameras, and obligingly the ghost shows up with some electrical discharge above the bed, causing Carla to shout “He’s weak! He can’t touch us! Die, you bastard! DIE!” She then runs around the house, getting all the kids up, delighted that they’ve defeated the spectral menace. Uh, honey, I wouldn’t jump the gun.
So now Phil shows up again, trying to get Carla back into therapy, since the only way she can be cured is to face that she’s a fucking wingnut. Please note how Phil parks his car in the middle of the street between two parked cars, effectively blocking the entire street. He’s surprised to find the entire house full of parapsychologists, and lets just say that he isn’t very open to seeing things from their point of view. He gets Carla alone and now we have another one of those time-extender scenes in which she refuses to say the one pertinent thing: These guys are the only ones who believe me and are going to do something about it. Also extending our running time pointlessly is the fact that no one says to Phil “Hey, why don’t you stick around?” Because all you have to do is wait two shakes of a lamb’s tail and some undeniable ghostly phenomenon will happen. But no, then we couldn’t extend our cocked-up conflict.
So that night they have a billion people in the house [including this one gray-haired lady who does nothing but issue world-weary and wise commentary], when the ghost starts SHOOTING LASER BEAMS THAT EXPLODE IN SPARKS ONCE THEY HIT THE WALL! It’s like he thinks he’s in the opening hallway battle of Star Wars. I have to admit that ghost who wield lasers are aces with me [see also: The Manitou]. First Carla gains some catharsis by confronting the ghost verbally [SUCH a shame Oprah wasn’t on at the time], then they all chant “Show yourself!” and eventually this glowing greenish cloud forms and—it’s Ed McMahon! With a huge check! No, silly, it’s just a big formless glowing green cloud, like any other formless glowing green cloud you might see everyday.
So the researchers have all this video and still cameras, but we never see them take a picture or see one of the pictures, and the movie just leaves this all unaddressed, so you’re sitting at home like “Okay, either they have DEFINITIVE photographic evidence that will silence even the most skeptical nay-sayer, or they’re all just too dumb to take a single photograph. And you know what? The movie NEVER addresses this. I’ll tell you what happened later, when we get to the real case this is based on.
So then Jerry The Boyfriend shows up just as all the researchers are leaving and asks a gentle “WTF?” Carla is again coy, oh THIS has been wrong, and THAT has been wrong, but never summing up with an overarching statement such as “I have been haunted by a ghost.” She then WINS the whiny passive-aggressive guilt trip of the YEAR award when she says “The only thing I know for certain is that it started about the time you left—but I don’t say that with any blame or accusation.” No, no, none at ALL. I can tell. Jerry, ever clueless, says “I know why you can’t sleep” [i.e. she needs his cock] and soon follows it with “Starting tonight, it’s gonna be forever… let’s go to bed.” And it turns out he’s bought her a present! Is it his favorite novel, the experience of which he’d love to share? Is it a book of Rothko paintings? Is it a gift certificate for a spa getaway? No—it’s some blue lingerie! That he wants her to go put on, right then! This is one of those movies where you realize that feminists actually HAVE made a ton of progress, as you see that in the 70s and early 80s [and of course before] men could be presented as self-centered assholes who regarded women as there to look sexy, fetch them beers and cook them meals and give them sex when they want it. And no one would think anything about it. Anyway, so Jerry goes in the bathroom to shoot some Binanca in his mouth, and when he comes out, there Carla is, getting raped right in front of him. Like I said, this ghost isn’t bashful. Jerry tries to help [eventually], and gets thrown across the room. He ends up picking up a chair and breaking it over what would be the assailant’s back, if he were there, but presumably hitting Carla. I presume that, because the next thing we see, she’s at the hospital. Phil shows up, of course, and councils Jerry to stay, but Jerry says he can’t deal with this and abandons Carla. This really is one guy you want to have around. Thanks for all the help, Jer!
So now the paranormal trio show up with a plan. We next see that “plan” enacted: They have duplicated Carla’s house inside a giant gym or something—please note all the lines the assistant has about how it’s “exactly like” her house—and above them, are a bunch of tanks of liquid helium, the coldest substance known to man, or some shit. Here is the “plan:” The entity attacks Carla. They watch from the control room, and tell her ‘Go to the safe zone,’ and she is to RUN immediately to the safe zone, which is a corner of the room with a circular plexiglass barrier that swings shut—in only about four seconds!—and will thus keep her “safe” from the entity, while they douse said entity with liquid helium and FREEZE it. The SPIRIT. This is obviously several steps beyond patently ludicrous on SEVERAL levels [and there are more levels to come!] as 1) We only ever SEE evidence of the ghost when it is ON Carla, or in several places at once, making it impossible to know when it is in or outside of the safe zone, 2) That safe zone is enormous and takes a looooong time to close, during which any respectable spirit could slip in as well, and 3) They’re going to FREEZE the GHOST. They’re going to FREEZE the GHOST. Does this seem silly to anyone else but me?
But you know what? It turns out there’s a REASON the movie goes haywire right at this very point, that we’ll get to when we discuss the real story, after this message from Blue Diamond Almonds…
So we’ve had a scene with Phil’s supervisor in which it has become clear [if it hasn’t been already] that Phil has FEELINGS for Carla. Although what they’re based on, I have no idea, and since a) she’s a psychological patient of his, and b) he fell in love with her while she was telling him of being raped by an unseen assailant, I kind of don’t think this is a connection that should be encouraged. Nevertheless, he comes over, sees the huge house-in-a-gym, goes in, and begs her to leave with him. He says he cares for her “very much. VERY much” and that he was hoping they could continue to make “contact.” Clueless Carla finally wises up to what he’s saying, and says “I don’t want to make that contact.” Ooof—right in the balls! Phil goes away, dejected, then decides—Dammit!—he’s gotta save her from HERSELF! And of course all these lunatic crackpots. So he runs in the house, is caught by security, and they suggest—FINALLY—that he stick around and watch. So he and his boss do just that.
Okay, let’s get back to our layers of ludicrousness. Carla is sleeping when some phenomena or other occurs, and they tell her “Move to the protected area.” They had previously agreed that when they said that, she needs to hoof it, like NOW, but now she’s like “What? Protected area? I… I think I’ve HEARD that somewhere before…” She doesn’t actually SAY all that, but she just lolls around like a moron as they say it like FOUR times. Well, turns out the entity is chasing her around with a big hose that shoots out liquid helium [causing you at home to think “Wait—so their PLAN was to chase the entity (the invisible entity, that is) around with this helium hose?” Yes, that was their “plan”]. One will have cause to note that the hose chasing her around, oozing white gas, is somewhat phallic. So finally idiot Carla makes it to the Safe Zone, it closes, the entity freezes it with the helium, and the glass instantly shatters! NOT VERY SAFE AT ALL, IS IT? In fact, one could justly describe it as “useless.” This was their “plan.”
So now Carla gets chased around by the hose, that tries to freeze her, until she finally turns on it, and says, to the hose: “All right, you bastard! You can do anything you want to me!” Then Phil can’t take it anymore—god damn it, he LOVES her!—and rushes down to get her out of here. The big tanks above start to explode, spewing deadly liquid helium, quite damaging at the slightest touch, everywhere—except on our heroes! You know those times when you’re right under some massively spurting explosion of liquid and, by some miracle, NONE of it happens to get on you? You know? No? They’re also fine to put their hands in puddles of it, too, despite an earlier demonstration that it freezes flesh on contact. Yeah. Weird how those things work out. But what I want to know is: Is the whole place is filled with helium gas, why aren’t they all speaking with squeaky, high-pitched voices?
So now there’s a huge ice sculpture that looks like a several story tall jello mold, and it’s got an angry entity trapped inside. It crunches around for a while, as everyone looks at it in awe, and it finally explodes, setting the entity free. Besides, if they trapped that thing anyway, how were they planning on KEEPING it cold? A giant entity-storage walk-in freezer? It would be a fun idea if they broke it up into ice cubes and we could have a sequel where a bunch of people are served entityettes in their mixed drinks. Anyway, the whole thing suddenly wraps up, and we have a title informing us that this is based on a real incident, and the real Carla Moran and her kids moved to Texas, where the attacks, although lessened in frequency, continued.
< < < SPOILERS END
On the DVD is a little special that gives you details of the real case, and is made up mostly of an interview with the real parasychological researcher. It’s true that the real woman, Doris Bither, ran into them by coincidence at the bookstore. They say that the rapes stopped when they came on the scene, but the violent attacks continued. Apparently the real woman was quite a bit more poor and… well, how can I say “White Trash” in a nice way? She apparently had a bad drinking problem, and the attacks only happened when she drank, which is completely skipped by the film, and with good reason, as it makes you ask: “Well, why doesn’t she work on stopping drinking?” It also puts an interesting different slant on the case, if you are of the mindset that these are the projections of Bither's own mind, as perhaps it’s a projection of her guilt and shame over drinking. So when she says she will “cooperate” with the entity, and give in to the attacks, maybe in some weird way she is trying to find some mental peace over the fact that she can’t stop, and is accepting the “consequences?” You can read more about the real case here.
The other interesting things to note are that according to the researcher, they had a billion cameras on hand, but none of them would record the phenomena, which is rather conveeeeeenient. He later talks about plaster boards being ripped off the walls and flying at Bither, making you wonder if they couldn’t get a picture of THAT, but they just elide over it. They claim that when the entity appeared, it actually formed the floating torso of a very large, very strong man—which makes you wonder why they didn’t include that in the movie. We also find out that the writer of the novel made up the figure of Phil Sneiderman, which makes sense from a structural viewpoint in terms of constructing a novel, as opposed to account of the real case. We also find out that the parts based on the real case ended after the torso appeared—the researchers just didn’t have enough money to go on—so the writer approached the researcher guy and asked what WOULD you have done, if you had unlimited funds, and THAT became the whole ending with the duplicate of the house and liquid helium and all that. Which is interesting, because that’s exactly when the film becomes too ludicrous to be believed. But he’s obviously trying to give the novel and film some kind of climax in the face of the challenge that the story essentially has no ending.
One also senses that this movie is knowingly attempting to use the case to comment on women’s issues of the time. There’s the whole thing about the psychologists not believing her about the rapes because of her messy, sordid love life, multiple husbands, single mother, absent boyfriends, etc. Similar to how inquiries into real rape victims’ stories often turn to focus on the woman’s personal life and if she in some way “asked for it.” There’s also the content around horribly chauvinistic husbands, boyfriends that drop in and out when they feel like it, Carla’s abusive father and others in her past, and even Phil, who develops feelings improper for a therapist to have about his patient, for reasons best left to conjecture. And the movie both wants to have this be an “issue,” and also float the possibility in our minds that perhaps Carla really IS just projecting all of this for one reason or other. The only thing is, it’s just all dropped in, none of it is developed, and most of it just evaporates, making it seem more like carelessness than anything. It’s too bad, because it has a lot of good material, it just doesn’t take any of it far enough in any one direction.
AND! While on the one hand the movie is trying to cast Carla as this independent single woman who has been unfairly battered around, literally and figuratively, by men both real and incorporeal, and wants us to get behind her in her struggle, it’s kind of hard to do when the movie is simultaneously asking us to exalt in seeing this woman getting repeatedly raped. Especially the big selling point of the movie, the unseen hands on her breasts—it’s just prurient, and the movie can’t have it both ways. This is where it becomes unfortunate that they use the guitar hit to express the pounding anger of the ghost, as to our ears now [and maybe they meant it even then] it sounds like we’re supposed to be excited by how awesome it all is.
Finally [I feel like I’ve been writing this review forever], how is it as a movie? Eh. Barbara Hershey is very good, but the fact is that the story is rather meandering, you have the feints in one direction and another [like the hints Carla is attracted to her son—interesting, with supporting evidence supplied by the film—and suddenly dropped] and late-game developments, like the boyfriend [which one interpretation sees as the cause of the entire manifestation] who shows up 60 minutes in, having barely been previously mentioned, then going away just as quickly. And of course, the glaring fact that the movie, without giving away a spoiler, has a beginning and a middle. So… it’s not the worst thing you’ve ever sat through, and it has some fun ghosty thrills, but ultimately it’s one that can easily be skipped.
It won’t kill you, it’s kind of interesting, but ultimately doesn’t come to much.