One night it’s Christian botheration (see entry below on The List), the next night it’s Santeria exploitation. My Netflix queue will soon be in need of an exorcist—perhaps Udo Kier’s wacky padre from Dario Argento’s The Mother of Tears is available.
Anyway, this brings us to The Possession of Joel Delaney, a weird pre-Exorcist thriller from 1972. Shirley MacLaine plays a rich divorced woman named Nora, who lives the high life in the upper 70s on Manhattan. Her husband left her for a trophy wife, but Nora doesn’t seem to care that much: she has two kids; a wardrobe full of fur garments, including big fuzzy hats that could have been borrowed from Dr. Zhivago; and a brother, Joel (Perry King in his second role), on whom she dotes in a way that is positively Oedipal. Indeed, it takes a couple of scenes to realize that Joel is her sibling and not her gigolo.
Nora also has a Hispanic maid and treats her abominably. I’m not sure how much the movie intended to paint Nora as a really egregious example of the upper-class obliviousness, but she is seriously self-absorbed, petty and demanding.
Joel, on the other hand, has gone Boho, living in Spanish Harlem and hanging out with a Puerto Rican kid named Tonio, who is serious trouble. (Spoilers ahead on next page).
No matter how much Nora tries to coddle Joel (there are family issues that have left her with a ration of guilt), the weirder he gets. At the most inappropriate times, he starts speaking Spanish (which he claims not to know) and insulting the maid. The walls of his room are covered with weird ritualistic symbols. He gets rough in bed with his girlfriend
Worse comes to worst, when a severed head turns up in Nora’s apartment. Apparently, Joel has been possessed by the spirit of Tonio, who, it turns out, was a serial killer responsible for a string of murders a while back.
At first Nora turns to her psychiatrist for help, but Freud is no help in this kind of dire situation. Instead, Nora braves the mean streets to find a Puerto Rican botanica who also conducts exorcisms. After much writhing, dancing on burning floorboards and candle action, even the Santeria priest admits defeat.
Fearing for her life from Joel (who has also beheaded the pyschiatrist). Nora and the kids flee to a remote beachside home. There, of course, Joel finds them in no time flat. Now wearing full West Side Story Sharks regalia, his hair slicked back, spouting dubbed slangy Spanish and brandishing a switchblade, Joel starts to torment Nora and the kids.
This is where the film gets seriously bent. For starters, Joel takes the flounder the kids caught fishing earlier and demands that the boy gut it on the dining-room table. (Fan mail from some flounder? A Christ reference? Who knows).
Then he goes really sadistic and demands that the young boy take off all his clothes and dance for him—and we see the young actor naked. The girl is forced down on all fours and made to eat dog food. It is doubtful that such overt abuse of child characters (or actors) would be allowed in a film today. It’s as if a scene from Pasolini’s Salo had been inserted into Rosemary’s Baby. During all of this psychological mayhem, performed in front of giant plate-glass windows, a phalanx of police stand by, apparently helpless to intervene. Eventually, Joel comes out onto the sand and is shot.
In the final image, Nora, barely concerned with her children’s welfare, cradles the head of her dying brother in her arms, and the spirit of Tonio moves into her—all of a sudden she’s fondling the switchblade like she knows how to use it.
Can this really be where MacLaine developed her well-known interest in the afterlife?
PS: Weirdest of all is the fact that the family dog starts out in the early scenes as a yellow Lab, but later in the movie is suddenly played by a golden retriever. Perhaps the dog is possessed too!