Stringing along a lame title, The Possession of Joel Delaney is a sometimes tense, transgressive thriller looking to escape from glib, shoddy trappings and sluggish pacing. As such it's more miss than hit, but a few standout sequences, some disturbing characterizations and a nasty, brutish conclusion make it decent fodder for horror historians.
Thrown into a snooty high society cocktail party, Possession's hand is quickly tipped as we listen in on extremely rich white folk blathering on about whatever. For each bland bit of polite small talk there's a shot of an African mask or indigenous fertility symbol carefully displayed by hands two generations shy of Imperialism. Wealthy heiress Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine) will soon view this thorny intersection of worlds from a personal standpoint, as her weird boho brother Joel (Perry King) starts getting a little too close to the other side (of the tracks).
Yep, Joel's eschewed family money for the earthy pleasures of a Puerto Rican neighborhood, which includes living in a hovel, listening to good music, and possibly hanging out with a kid who likes to cut girls' heads off. As that bad atmosphere appears to be rubbing off on Delaney, Benson's forced into attending a wild Santeria ritual and ultimately fleeing the city with her two adolescent kids. Then things get really nasty.
Hitting theater screens in 1972, The Possession of Joel Delaney beat The Exorcist to the punch, but this is no pea-soup shocker. Though intermittently successful, Possession comes off as a slightly small-minded xenophobic potboiler - the godfather of The Believers - albeit one decently suffused with style and atmosphere. Sadly, only a trio of set pieces really stands out, while slow pacing, dated ethnocentricity, and missed chances force this picture back in amongst the crowded possession set.
I'm a sucker for possession, and was pretty disturbed by Delaney when it made it to television in 1981. I remember those three great set pieces like it was yesterday. Benson cowers in fear during the Santeria ceremony as odd-looking people sway and moan. Menacing shadows climb the walls, a little curandero chants and dances menacingly while someone screams, foaming at the mouth. MacLaine's observer presence and 'normalcy' both sucks us into the scene and highlights a unique everyday/alien atmosphere. This simple, tidy apartment, modestly decorated - but with a heavy Santeria influence - has become part of the passage to the uncanny so necessary in psychological horror such as this.
Of lesser importance, though no less delightful is the nasty discovery Benson makes in Delaney's girlfriend's awesome apartment. One of many scenes that at least demonstrate style was a focus on set, this showstopper in an amazing all-Lucite apartment - chilly whites, transparent surfaces and rainbow accents - completes evil's path from the Bowery to Park Avenue. Evil also makes it to the Shore, in a fab vacation home that becomes the ultimate scene of horrific humiliation of Benson's kids. If the Lucite apartment doesn't affirm that this is a '70s movie, this almost needlessly cruel and transgressive sequence fits right in with nastiness from more disgraced grindhouse shockers.
But all this good weirdness is weighed down by pacing more suited to a TV movie than a thriller. Breathlessness gives way to expository scenes that move too slowly and sometimes interrupt the flow of the high points. A 90-minute run-time would make a more-punchy thriller, while 106-minutes and Shirley MacLaine I guess makes for a more serious picture. A picture with plenty of 'OMG, Puerto Ricans!' moments that really date the movie. Especially quaint is Delaney cursing Benson's maid as a 'puta' in another person's voice during a pretty bad birthday party.
So maybe Possession is a little slow in spots, and maybe it's a bit off-putting to see all this evil pouring out of Puerto Rican culture (thankfully, the maid righteously capitalizes on a chance to reprimand Benson) but the real sin is omission, as various really unsavory aspects of Delaney's personality and his relationship with his sister are glanced over yet unexamined. Subtlety is nice, but this stuff is too good, adding another sicko layer to a movie with such potential.