Directed by: Waris Hussein
Written by: Matt Robinson (novel by Ramona Stewart)
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Perry King, David Elliot, Lisa Kohane & Miriam Colon
Reviewed by: Brett H.
“Our practices are not for sale. You can’t buy belief.”
Back in grade seven we had to do a magazine as a school project. Naturally, mine was entitled “Chillers” and covered the horror genre I have loved virtually since I started talking. In the weeks before, I had just caught The Exorcist on A&E for my first viewing and also enjoyed the film that played after it, The Shining. I knew these films were cut and sought out the R versions as quick as I could. But, back to the magazine; aside from some terrible articles I wrote on the genre, we were allowed to include other features of our choice for bonus marks. I got the bright idea to include a horror movie TV guide. I dug up all the horror I could on Canadian channels such as Space and decided it was a pretty crappy guide. So, I went to the Cinemax/HBO sites and found some real content. A film that never would have caught my eye a mere month earlier suddenly had a lot of appeal, and it seemed as though these channels played it every day. The Possession of Joel Delaney is a title I have remembered to this day; the only title I remember from that guide I made over a decade ago. After being terrified of The Exorcist, I really wanted to see it, but the opportunity never presented itself. Until now. Legend Films has finally released the possession flick I’ve pondered for the last decade onto DVD. And one thing’s for certain; it was well worth the wait, even if there’s a distinct lack of projectile vomit.
Wealthy Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine) is a divorcee with two children coming from her marriage, Peter and Carrie. She adores her brother, Joel (Perry King) and invites him over for dinner with her and the kids one evening. After planning a fancy feast out for the special occasion with her housekeeper, Veronica (Miriam Colon), the family waits for Joel to arrive. And waits, and waits. Finally Norah decides to call Joel up, but all that can be heard on the other end of the line is the beating of drums. Feeling this is out of the ordinary for Joel, she heads on over to his place and finds him being escorted out of his slummy apartment by the police. According to the super of his building, Joel had gone crazy and tried to kill him. Confused by the turn of events, Norah tries to help her brother out through his problems and invites him to stay with her.
Soon enough, it’s Joel’s birthday and Norah has a bash planned out in celebration. He begins to act strange and uses a crystal to lead his girlfriend to her lost earring. When the cake is brought out, things get really out of hand and Joel suddenly takes her long hair and holds it eerily close to the candles on the cake. Suddenly, the altercation begins and he begins speaking Spanish to his family in a very imposing tone, especially to the Puerto Rican housekeeper. The night ends on this downer and we then see Norah the next day going to take Joel’s girlfriend another earring that she lost at the house the night before. All is not well at her apartment, and soon enough it becomes apparent that Joel is mentally unstable… or even possessed. The housekeeper quits soon after and when Norah goes to find out why, she gets a little more than she bargained for. It turns out that a less than law-abiding friend of Joel’s has recently died, but he has no interest in resting in peace. He’d much rather leave women in pieces.
The Possession of Joel Delaney is an interesting piece in the realm of demonic possession movies. First and foremost, contrary to my initial assumption when I first heard of the film during my little project, it was actually released in May of 1972, a full year and a half before The Exorcist hit theatres. Rather than being possessed by an ancient demon, Joel is grasped by a close friend who had a history of very violent crimes. Suddenly, crimes of the same nature begin plaguing women of the city and we all know who is committing them and why. All the deaths are off screen but the film is much gorier than most films of its time. Instead of Fathers Merrin and Karras, all Shirley MacLaine’s character has to help her with is a Puerto Rican witch doctor and family of the possessor, who come together to try to stop him once and for all from disgracing the family.
If you want an exorcism, you get it; sort of. The ritual is, of course, much different in a voodoo inspired tale than one based on Christian views. No powers of Christ compelling, but there is a truly odd ceremony (could any voodoo ceremony in which everyone is speaking a tongue you don’t understand be anything but?) in which the goal is to expel the presence from Joel’s body. The only aspect of the movie that never gelled with me is the fact that the ceremony doesn’t free Joel and thus a whole subplot is weakened. The film builds suspense and mystery well up to, during, and after this point, but despite the fact that the Puerto Rican immigrants offer all the answers on paper and all their beliefs turn out to be true, they give the character of Norah little to work with. Since the initial attempt failed, she’d have to lure Joel to their neck of the woods for a second kick at the can (she only needed a belonging of his for the initial attempt). The same Joel that they know is possessed by a murderous spirit; A Joel who in turn would know all too well what was in store for him if suddenly a rich white lady wanted to take her brother to the slums to mingle with a few Puerto Rican voodooists.
A next phase of the exorcism never happens, which is the main reason it seems like all the interesting things we learned were all for naught. But, what does happen is not bad in the least as the film really takes a turn for the bizarre. It’s not surprising that a film featuring voodoo and mucho Spanish speaking would feel a bit like a foreign horror movie, but the ending is straight out of what would soon come to fruition as Italian exploitation in the vein of Last House on the Left (which the film also slightly predates) inspired films. A menacing switchblade is always in the equation and Norah and the kids are abused and degraded by the spirit residing in Joel’s body. They’re forced to eat dog food and the boy is made to strip down nude and dance, along with some mild possession induced incest and more. With big sunglasses and a black leather jacket, he sure looks like something out of Watch Me When I Kill.
There’s a reason for these events to take place, of course. The man possessing Joel is not too happy about growing up poor when these kids seem to have it so good. Social structure plays a key role in the film (another similarity to the Italian exploits that portray commentaries on society) with the rich, white family being forced to interact with the poor, immigrant population and the different approaches to life and religion/superstitions. It also shows that to accomplish something, all walks of society must come together to achieve a common goal. Legend Films brings this gem to DVD from the Paramount vaults with a widescreen transfer that is a bit grainy in some darker scenes, yet is marvellous during most others and the mono track is sufficient with clarity, accenting the tense and eerie soundtrack nicely. There are no special features, but the price is still right to own this chilling, yet forgotten piece of 70s sacrilege lore. The Possession of Joel Delaney is a shocking tale of suspense and voodoo, punctuated by a twisted grindhouse aura; a horror film that no fan should be without! Buy it!
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