Predating William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist by a year, The Possession of Joel Delaney is a possession shocker that's become marginalized because more violent and sexually rude genre entries have eclipsed this far tamer story about a fractured family whose internal rot finally blossoms in the final half hour.
Delaney also breaks current filmmaking rules by not hitting audiences with a shock opening and hyping terror through the use of visual style over subtlety and simplicity; some viewers might the film's pacing a bit taxing, but for those with patience and an appreciation for the film's docu-drama style, when the shocks come, they're deeply disturbing and arguably more powerful than a barrage of visual and aural effects.
Shot on location in ugly, winter-chilled New York City (for some reason, New York never looked pretty in seventies films), director Waris Hussein spends a lot of time establishing the troubled life of Joel Delaney (Perry King): like his mother, Joel's sister Norah (Shirley MacLaine) is domineering and over-protective, and still treats him like a child – evidenced in an extremely awkward birthday party scene, with Joel's hot model girlfriend Sherry (Barbara Trentham) watching from the sidelines as he's given prank gifts more suitable for a tween.
Based on the novel by Ramona Stewart, the script contains a lot of sharp contrasts – seeing Joel and Sherry having sweaty, angry sex prior to the party captures Joel's personal struggle to clumsily find an adult identity – and the genuine affection between Joel and his niece and nephew is played up to make the finale all the more horrific. (The less said of the ending the better, save that it involves moments of humiliation one probably couldn't get away with today in a studio release.)
Shirley MacLaine gives a snug performance as Joel's worrisome sister, a woman who's fallen down the class ladder after her recent divorce with a playboy doctor; and Perry King is pretty good as the affable, almost juvenile Joel and the possessive spirit of a Puerto Rican serial killer whose calling card is leaving severed heads in unlikely places.
Hammer Films veteran Michael Hordern has a small role as a married doctor, and his butler is played by Earle Hyman, an actor best-known as Bill Cosby's father in The Cosby Show.
Waris Hussein's almost banal gore revelations are surprisingly potent because they blend in with the set décor, and he allows just enough beats for audiences to realize what's happened, before cutting to a horrified reaction shot. There's also an eerie sequence where a disbelieving but desperate Norah attends a Santeria exorcism ceremony in the hope that whatever weirdness has claimed her brother can be expunged.
Perhaps the only unintentional shocks of Delaney are the amazingly ugly clothes, hairstyles, and set décor of the era; MacLaine's equine mane is treated to all kinds of bizarre swirls, curls, and buns, whereas the furniture appropriately represents the vulgar combination of period styles globbed into rooms to impart a sense of style. The only exception is Sherry's bachelorette pad, a glossy white spaceship with curved plastic moldings and rainbow-striped, geometric furniture; it's ugly, but at least it's stylistically consistent.
The music score is generally sparse, but that might be because Hussein recognized Joe Raposo's score was wildly inconsistent and never really addressed the film's subtext with suitable cues. The abrupt music edits kind of suit the film's docu-drama style, but several cues seem to mock their intended scenes, particularly the bizarre birthday music that belongs in the genre Raposo is best-known for: scoring Sesame Street, The Muppets, and many children's TV specials.
Legend Films have used a clean, crisp print, and their anamorphic widescreen transfer contains stable colours and a standard mono mix soundtrack. Pity there's no extras, but this mid-price DVD is part of the company's first wave of long unavailable, Paramount produced and distributed titles, which includes several ITC productions. The ITC back catalogue is among the most neglected and worst-represented ever, making this first DVD wave from Legend pretty important.
After a few more theatrical efforts, director Hussein became a prolific director of episodic and feature-length TV productions. The next film by screenwriter Grimes Grice (Irene Kamp) was the dour, nihilistic The Beguiled (1971). Producer Martin Poll's other horror efforts include Night Watch (1973), and the oddball Haunted Summer (1988).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan