Judge Brett Cullum is often possessed by the spirit of Elizabeth Berkley, doing all the moves from Showgirls...or at least that's his excuse.
Shirley MacLaine thinks her brother is possessed, and it's not Warren Beatty. Well, at least not this time.
The Possession of Joel Delaney is often compared to The Exorcist, but more aptly it should be held up to Angel Heart or Child's Play if we're comparing supernatural influences. The film is about the titular Joel Delaney (Perry King, The Day After Tomorrow) who is possessed by the spirit of a Puerto Rican serial killer through Santeria rituals. Playing the "damsel in distress" is Joel's sister, Nora (Shirley MacLaine,Terms of Endearment), who notices her brother is acting odd and suddenly speaking fluent Spanish, and threatening friends and family. Joel begins to act irrationally, gets carted off to Bellevue for attacking his landlord, and mysteriously people around him end up murdered in the horrific style of a killer from Spanish Harlem. Nora finds out enough to do something about the problem thanks to her Puerto Rican maid who leads her to a Santeria drugstore owner, and she even tries to get help from both board certified doctors and witch practitioners alike. When things get super tough she does the illogical thing and takes her family to a remote beach house for the final reel. This allows the brother a chance to show up and do some "unspeakable" acts on her and her brood. The Possession of Joel Delaney is one of those horror films where the characters always make the wrong choice in the face of danger.
This film is far more subtle and slower paced than The Exorcist, which came later, but it's just as chilling in some ways. It meditates on disturbing topics such as the American class system, taboo sexuality, and child abuse. The Possession of Joel Delaney seems to be offering a commentary on social standings with these rich spoiled New York elitists having to reckon with demons from the poor side of town. Peppered throughout the film is a constant "us versus them" mentality from the upper class toward the lower. There is also a disturbing theme of incest that permeates the narrative playing on some sexual tension between Nora and her brother. Early on at a party, someone mistakes brother and sister for boyfriend and girlfriend, and it doesn't seem an odd observation given their chemistry. Perhaps most infamously The Possession of Joel Delaney contains a scene in the climax that would earn it an NC-17 rating were it released today, and Stephen King mentioned this sequence in an article for Entertainment Weekly as being peculiarly disturbing. It involves the kids having to disrobe and eat something at knife point, and it's truly one of those scenes where you wonder just what everyone was thinking as they filmed this production. Yeah, there are some really strong images you won't be able to shake easily.
The film comes from 1972, and the DVD is distributed by Legend Films, which has been mining the "B movie" vault of Paramount for its latest releases. Like most of the other discs in this line, we get a bare bones DVD with only 12 chapter stops with no extras. The video quality varies wildly during the transfer, often right in the middle of a scene. Colors wash out and warp from shot to shot, there are problems with plaids shimmering, and plenty of scratches and dirt are accompanied by grain. We get the film in widescreen for the first time, and it does look better than the VHS copy from 1998. Yet you can tell, not too much has been done to clean up the old film stock. I've heard mention some of the scenes were in fact trimmed here in region one for the release, but I can't vouch for the veracity of that claim. It doesn't appear anything was cut, and the running time is actually a minute longer than what was originally listed as the theatrical length. Sound is a very tinny and unimpressive mono which often obscures the dialogue and makes the music a touch too loud.
I don't think anyone would regard The Possession of Joel Delaney as a classic of the horror genre, but it certainly casts a strange, unshakable spell. The possession angle is played pretty straight without make-up or over the top effects, and the whole thing relies on the creeping dread of seeing a family member grow more and more sociopathic and psychotic while feeling helpless. Both MacLaine and King do great acting jobs, but the script plods and meanders in strange directions that prevent anything from really getting wound too tight or scary. Perhaps the best scene in the film comes when Shirley MacLaine has to witness a Santeria ritual, because it is shot well and feels authentic. But then you have to sit through the mean-spirited climax featuring torturous scenes of child abuse that will make even the most hardened viewer squirm. The last scenes find a way to merge the class struggle, sexual taboos, and a contempt of children all in to about ten powerful minutes that feel like it sends this one way over the line by today's standards. Perhaps we can view The Possession of Joel Delaney as a precursor to the "torture porn" genre that has become so chic recently thanks to films like Hostel or Saw. Seems the film values degradation moreso than out and out scares, and you walk away wanting to shower right after you get off the couch.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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