Now available on DVD
Shirley MacLaine as Norah Benson
Perry King as Joel Delaney
Barbara Trentham as Sherry
Miriam Colon as Veronica
Edmundo Rivera Alvarez as Don Pedro
Directed by Waris Hussein
For a brief period in the 1970s, immediately following the box-office dominance of The Exorcist, there was nothing in horror more profitable than possession. The resulting surge of exorcisms and satanic cults on movie screens amounted mostly to a lot of unremarkable dreck relying far too heavily on the more sensational aspects of William Friedkin’s masterpiece (religious blasphemy, bodily fluids, etc.). But pull out your ouija board (or your Netflix queue) and summon The Possession of Joel Delaney and you’ll get a much different kind of possession flick. Made before The Exorcist, and thus long before exorcism movies were all about preteens and pea soup, this 1972 production may not be as effective as the smash that succeeded it, but it possesses more class and credit than a lot of its peers.
Appearing in her only role in an outright horror film, Shirley MacLaine plays haughty Manhattan socialite Norah Benson, a high-strung mother of two whose posh Park Avenue pad and frequent penthouse partying hide an impending emotional breakdown. When not worrying about which fur coat to wear or what to serve for dinner, Norah troubles herself somewhat excessively with the whereabouts and wellbeing of her younger brother Joel (King). Recently returned from a trip to Tangiers, Joel isn’t quite the upstanding young man he once was. He plays rough with Norah’s two children, misses the dinner Norah’s planned in his honor, and instigates a fight with his landlord. A birthday party takes a bizarre twist when Joel starts spouting insults in Spanish and nearly lights his girlfriend’s hair on fire. But it’s not until he’s implicated in a grisly murder that Norah realizes there’s something seriously wrong with her bohemian brother.
When she learns of several similar crimes involving slain Puerto Rican girls, Norah cabs it out of her safety zone and into the slums of Spanish Harlem in search of answers. Unwelcoming streets and dank, crowded apartment complexes ultimately lead her to the home of Don Pedro (Alvarez), a shopkeeper-cum-shaman who’s convinced that Joel is possessed by the spirit of a homicidal Puerto Rican man named Tonio Perez and can only be freed through a strange Santeria ritual.
It’s easy to see why The Possession of Joel Delaney and The Exorcist are commonly compared. Both detail the story of a young, wealthy divorcee struggling to understand the frightening behavioral changes taking place in a loved one, turning first to conventional therapies before putting her faith in somewhat dubious spiritual practices when the ârespectableâ means fail. But one could just as easily find similarities between Joel and the character of Andy in Bob Clark’s Deathdream, another film about a young man coming home from an exotic place mysteriously and irrevocably altered for the worst. Joel‘s extensive use of Manhattan (the film was shot entirely on location) evokes the hostile urban backdrop of Rosemary’s Baby, the hellish streets and claustrophobic homes essentially characters in their own right.
Joel Delaney is hardly on par with such classics, but what links them all, and what ultimately sets this film apart from the glut of demon/exorcism movies that possessed screens throughout the â70s, is a feeling of authenticity, and the desire to strike a deeper, more resonant chord than the typical shlock of the day. There’s more to The Possession of Joel Delaney than just the possession of Joel Delaney.
The rage of Tonio Perez, whether manifested in the decapitation of young girls or the hate he slurs through Joel’s lips, is not random, but reflects a teeming discontent; the dark side of New York’s deep-rooted and all-too-real class disparity. âYou people have things you keep to yourself,â Norah’s Puerto Rican housekeeper tells her from the doorway of a crummy Harlem apartment, âand so do we.â The practice of Santeria, totally alien to Norah’s upper-crust sensibilities but seemingly commonplace among the poor masses, is just part of Norah’s rude awakening as she journeys through the slums. Her presence on the street and in Don Pedro’s shop draws stares, some curious, some threatening, most mocking. When she attempts to bribe Pedro for information, the priest humiliates her, responding, âYou can’t buy belief.â
He and his neighbors have plenty to be pissed about. Crimes like the ones perpetrated by Tonio are buried in the newspapers and virtually ignored by the police; after all, the victims were just a bunch of Puerto Ricans. Yet Pedro defies bitterness and attempts to drive the violent spirit from Joel via long-distance in a sequence that’s as realistic as it is chaotic, and all the more disconcerting as a result. When he fails, he cites Norah’s disbelief as the cause and implores her to bring Joel to him so he can try again, but instead she and scriptwriters Irene Kamp and Matt Robinson, adapting the novel of the same name by Ramona Stewart, take a wrong turn and head for a secluded beach house in the Hamptons where, now removed from the stifling, shadowy grip of the city, The Possession of Joel Delaney begins to drifts out to sea. Fully engulfed by Tonio, Joel holds Norah and the kids captive, subjecting them to a series of degrading tasks and violent threats. The execution is quite frank and explicit, especially for 1972, treading openly on themes of incest and child abuse that few would dare touch even today, but there’s a lack of tension to the proceedings, and the poorly dubbed Spanish voice representing Tonio renders much of the scene false and laughable.
Still, The Possession of Joel Delaney manages to both take full advantage of the broadening social and cinematic allowances of its day and treat its subject matter with greater reverence that you’ll get in most modern possession movies. Effects-wise there’s nothing here to rival the work Dick Smith would do a year or so later, but a few severed heads are better than none, and while none of the performances will make heads spin, both MacLaine and King keep the material afloat for the majority of the film. Subtle, smart, and subversive, it’s not a bad way to exorcise a few hours from your night.