The Possession of Joel Delaney was made in 1972 at a time when, thanks to Rosemary's Baby, Hollywood saw supernatural horror as a hot commodity. Though it was released first, TPOJD was soon completely overshadowed by a new Warner Brothers movie, a little film known as The Exorcist. Largely forgotten for over 30 years, the film finally gets a DVD release, thanks to Legend Films.
First, let me say that this film is no Exorcist. It is not near the level of that horror masterpiece. Large stretches of the film are slow, awkward and very dated, plus it is hurt by shoddy makeup effects. That said, there are some strong shocking moments, particularly near the end, as well as good acting by the leads, that make the film worth at least a rental for horror film buffs.
The film is based on a popular novel by Ramona Stewart and stars an already established Shirley MacLaine (another review I read notes how MacLaine's presence, much like Gregory Peck did with The Omen, adds a touch of class and respectability to what otherwise might be seen as a lurid, grindhouse film). She plays affluent, snobbish Nora, a divorcee who lives with her two children. Her life seems to consist of attending elitist charity functions and taking care of her kids, while every once in awhile checking in on her brother Joel (played by the handsome, underrated Perry King).
Though clearly raised in an affluent family, Joel has chosen to live in a seedy Puerto Rican neighborhood in the East Village while remaining close to Nora. Their lives are turned upside-down when Joel snaps and assaults his landlord. Nora shows up just in time to see her brother, in a screaming rage, being thrown into the paddywagon and taken to Bellevue. Joel doesn't know what happened and can't explain it to his shrink. He does recall his close friendship with a Puerto Rican friend named Tonio, though, and the long conversations they shared...
Like The Exorcist, the victims are slowly but inevitably overtaken by the spirit possessing them while a loved one watches on in horror. Also like The Exorcist, the loved one soon finds out that mainstream cures, be they modern medicine or psychiatry, are powerless and that the only hope rests in the spirit world. However, Joel does not undergo an extreme physical transformation. Instead, his possession is shown through strange, violent outbursts and a sudden ability to speak fluent Spanish.
As mentioned earlier, the dated elements are the weakest aspects of the film. Some of the "groovy" dialogue, fashions and music early in the film have aged terribly. Also, some of the happy, playful exchanges early in the film between Joel and Nora are rather icky and seem to hint at incest (intentional or not). The most dated element, however, is the undercurrent of racism that exists in this film. It is clearly intended for Joel's possession by -gasp! - a Puerto Rican, and the subsequent invasion of Puerto Rican culture into Nora's life, to be an element in the horror. Furthermore, a key scene that was obviously intended to be frightening (ominous music plays as Nora wanders alone, frantic, through a crowded Puerto Rican neighborhood) seems so racist at first that it angered me.
However, I might have been wrong in how I viewed this scene: the scene in and of itself might not have been racist. Instead, it might have been more of a reflection of the xenophobia that already existed in Nora. She is a spoiled socialite who treats her Puerto Rican maid, Veronica, with condescension (there is an effective scene later when Nora goes to her housekeeper, desperate for help, and the tables are nicely turned - Nora is now in Veronica's world and has to play by her rules). Furthermore, all of the Puerto Rican characters, save for the evil spirit, are good and try to help Nora. Judge these scenes for yourself.
The film is worth a rental for three shocking and effective scenes. The first comes when Nora stumbles onto a gruesome decapitation murder. The effect is tempered because the head shown is very fake looking, but Nora's unexpected surprise is chilling nonetheless.
More effective is when Nora agrees to participate in a Santeria ceremony in an attempt to remove the evil spirit from Joel. The ritual seems authentic: in a small, crowded apartment, a curandero dances while other guests chant in Spanish, wail and scream. Nora cowers in a corner as certain guests seem to battle the evil spirit. It is an intense, frightening scene.
However, most notable, and controversial, is the ending, where Nora and her children find themselves in an isolated beach house, only to be terrorized and humiliated by the now fully possessed Joel. What Joel does to traumatize not only Nora but her children is shocking - and might not get past censors today (I learned from archived reviews when the film was first released that many critics back then thought these scenes went too far).
Again, The Possession of Joel Delaney is not on par with The Exorcist, but it is good enough that it should not have been forgotten this long. Some parts are rather embarrassingly dated, but the film does effectively mix social commentary with some truly shocking scenes. Horror fans should give it at least a look.
The release is bare bones, with only a chapter selection. I would have liked to have at least seen the trailer or a commentary track with Perry King (I especially would have like to hear his comments about the ending). However, the print and soundtrack are very good and possibly as clear as can be expected for a film this long forgotten.
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