Released a year before The Exorcist (1973), this intense thriller offers a much different approach to similar subject matter. Virtually no special effects were used for The Possession of Joel Delaney, and the spirit inhabiting the title character belongs not to a demon but to a person. Elegantly photographed, intelligently written, and filled with credible performances, The Possession of Joel Delaney treats its outlandish storyline with respect—so even though the film isn’t especially frightening, it makes for an immersive viewing experience. And while The Possession of Joel Delaney is not up to The Exorcist’s level, it’s still fun to play the contrast-and-compare game. The earlier picture is insinuating and restrained, while the latter is confrontational and spectacular. What both films share the deeply frightening notion of losing control over one’s soul.
Set in New York City, The Possession of Joel Delaney revolves, as does The Exorcist, around a woman who watches in terror as a loved one succumbs to possession. In this case, the woman is Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine), an affluent mother of two. (The children’s father doesn’t figure into the story.) Norah worries about her younger brother, Joel Delaney (Perry King), a handsome twentysomething who seems adrift in his life. Then an incident reveals that she has reason to worry—after Joel is arrested for attacking a man, Joel claims he has no memory of committing the crime. Norah arranges to get Joel freed from jail so long as he sees a therapist, but Joel insists he’s fine. Later, when a woman of his acquaintance is murdered, clues suggest an unhinged Joel was the killer. However, clues also point to an at-large Cuban immigrant. Conveniently, Norah has a Cuban maid, so the maid introduces Norah to the world of Santería and the possibility that the Cuban immigrant’s spirit entered Joel’s body.
The Possession of Joel Delaney takes its time during the investigative phase of the narrative, allowing ambiguity to seep into the storytelling. MacLaine thrives here, showing how her character struggles to comprehend things way behind her normal experience. She’s also fierce and understandably terrified during the film’s creepy finale. King, appearing in his first movie, does well playing a willful young man whose first manifestations of possession seem like mere petulance to those around him. If there’s a big flaw to the film, besides some sketchy gore effects, it’s that neither King nor the filmmakers create much empathy for the Joel character—a greater sense of what is lost by the corruption of Joel’s soul would have deepened the film’s emotional impact. As is, the picture is tense and unnerving, but it lacks the pathos that made The Exorcist work. That said, The Possession of Joel Delaney is among the rare horror pictures that take themselves seriously without seeming ridiculous for doing so.
The Possession of Joel Delaney: GROOVY