Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Perry King, Miriam Colon, Barbara Trentham, Edmundo Rivera Álvarez, Lisa Kohane, David Elliott, Lovelady Powell
Directed by Waris Hussein
Puerto Ricans. If you were a rich white woman living on New York’s Upper East Side in the early 70’s, there weren’t many other words that struck more fear in your heart of hearts. Sure, you were open-minded enough to hire an Hispanic housekeeper to feed and babysit your kids while you socialized with other members of the upper crust, artsy-fartsy set, but walk the streets of Spanish Harlem alone? Never!
In The Possession of Joel Delaney, which is seeing its first DVD release this June courtesy of San Diego-based Legend Films, a stunning young Shirley MacLaine stars as just such a person. Norah Benson is newly divorced and adjusting to life on her own with her two children, Carrie and Peter (Kohane and Elliott, respectively). Her brother, the Joel Delaney of the title, is played by engaging newcomer Perry King, who went on to gain fame and fortune 12 years later as studly PI Cody Allen in the TV series “Riptide.” Joel has just returned to New York from a trip to Tangiers and is acting very erratically. He plays rough with Carrie while ice skating, causing Norah some alarm. He also rekindles a seemingly on again/off again relationship with the extremely hip and tempestuous Sherry (Trentham), which doesn’t exactly thrill Norah either. Things come to a head when Joel is arrested for assaulting his landlord and taken to the infamous Bellevue psych ward.
As Norah struggles to help her sibling, she is also forced to come to terms with some deep-seated prejudices she has about … Puerto Ricans, what else?! As it turns out, Joel has become involved with a fellow named Tonio Perez and has, in fact, moved into his recently vacated apartment. Perez is the son of the man Joel attacked and has disappeared, most likely as a result of being the prime suspect in a string of murders involving young women who were decapitated with their heads hung from nearby trees. Of course, since the women were … you guessed it … Puerto Ricans, not much ado was made of their deaths in the local papers. Norah notices the Perez family’s apartment is decorated with all manner of religious icons, and Joel’s place also contains various artwork and symbols that look to be related to voodoo or black magic. Upon his release from Bellevue, Joel hems and haws about what’s really going on during his mandatory sessions with a shrink (Powell), who also happens to be a family friend. Meanwhile Norah decides to research both her brother’s behavior and Perez’s alleged crimes on her own. She enlists the aid of her maid, Veronica (Colon), who abruptly quit working for her after being rudely spoken to in Spanish by Joel. Veronica is hesitant to get involved; she knows better than to mess around with Santeria, but sensing Norah’s despair, she sends her to Don Pedro (Álvarez), who knows all about Perez and his connection to Joel.
To reveal more details would spoil the many pleasures to be derived from The Possession of Joel Delaney, but I must address its exorcism scene. I’ve seen plenty of such occurrences in films ranging from the sublime (Jennifer Carpenter’s stellar performance in The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the ridiculous (the laughable cell phone exorcism in this year’s One Missed Call remake) to the granddaddy of them all (The Exorcist). But never have I witnessed anything quite like what transpires in Joel Delaney once Norah provides Don Pedro with, not Joel himself, but rather a scarf that he had worn. Suffice to say that the look of horror on MacLaine’s face isn’t far off from what I experienced as well. It’s truly one for the ages.
Speaking of age, The Possession of Joel Delaney wears its 36 years incredibly well. Despite being filmed so long ago and looking very much like a product of its times (Those clothes! That hair!), it never feels overly dated other than when the phrase “Puerto Ricans!” is emphatically repeated over and over. Honestly, though, considering the era, it’s totally understandable and only serves as a mild distraction in the context of today’s overly-PC environment. Also on the controversial end of the spectrum, some incestuous feelings between Norah and Joel are hinted at — coyly at first, then escalating as Joel falls deeper under Tonio’s influence. But what’s indeed shocking, even by current standards, is the film’s climax, particularly the events that transpire between Joel and Peter. Yes, it’s a bit melodramatic, especially when King’s voice is obviously dubbed in Spanish, but it still embodies everything that was so good about Seventies filmmaking — a dark, disturbing setpiece culminating in about as bleak and unsettling a fade-out as you could ask for.
However, something else you might wish for — supplemental features on the disc — is sadly missing. There’s not a single extra to be had here, not even a trailer. I would have loved to hear Shirley and Perry reminisce about their experiences filming this long-lost tour de force for them both, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Instead I’ll just pop in the DVD, enjoy this blast from the past, and remind myself why, like Sublime, “I don’t practice Santeria; I ain’t got no crystal ball.” Well, okay, I do have a crystal ball. But that’s another story.
A year after its release, The Possession of Joel Delaney was overshadowed by a little film called The Exorcist, which was much more graphic. It was also a bit too over-the-top for my tastes. While many will see The Possession of Joel Delaney as old-fashioned due to its comparatively understated approach, it still packs a powerful punch and, all “Puerto Ricans” jokes aside, does shine a light on the nature of bigotry and how people in peril will work together to help each other despite their differences in ethnicity and religion. And let’s not forget that ending; it would never get past the censors today. While not quite a masterpiece, The Possession of Joel Delaney is certainly a classic — one of those once in a lifetime films that belongs in every discerning horror fan’s collection.
4 out of 5
0 out of 5
Discuss The Possession of Joel Delaney in our Dread Central forums!